Paracel Islands

Asia's fishermen in middle of South China Sea row

Asia's beleaguered fishermen are caught in the middle of escalating territorial disputes that threaten their lifelines and regional stability

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2012, 4:07am

When gun-toting Chinese guards spotted Tran Hien's unarmed wooden fishing boat in disputed waters, they seized his vessel, detained his crew and threw him in jail.

For generations the Vietnamese islanders of Ly Son have braved typhoons and other dangers to bring home fish, but now they also have to contend with patrols sent by Beijing to assert its territorial claims.

Swept along by nationalist sentiment, and forced to venture yet further out to sea to fill its nets, Asia's fishing fleet is increasingly on the front line of escalating tensions in the region.

In recent years, China has begun patrolling the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, using fishing bans and patrol boats to keep foreign trawlers out, say Vietnamese officials and fishermen.

"They had guns. They trained them on us, forced us to the front of the boat, then they boarded and arrested us," said Hien, who was detained in March along with his 10-man crew near the Paracel Islands and kept in detention for 49 days.

"My first son was born when I was in the Chinese prison," the 33-year-old boat captain said. "They took my nets, my GPS and I am now heavily in debt."

Hien and his men were held alongside the crew of another Vietnamese boat that was detained the same day. Both captains were beaten and "there was never enough food" for the 21 sailors, he said.

Hanoi says hundreds of fishing boat crews have been arrested near the Paracels and Spratlys by Chinese authorities over the past few years.

With coastal areas depleted by overfishing, the growing ranks of fishermen from Ly Son - located 30 kilometres east of Vietnam's mainland - rely on trips to the disputed archipelagos to net valuable hauls of anchovies, tuna and butterfish.

Hanoi claims "indisputable sovereignty" over the island chains, known locally as Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, which are several hundred kilometres off the coasts of both Vietnam and China.

Hanoi uses the fishermen, at least indirectly, to assert Vietnam's claims of sovereignty - rejecting any Chinese efforts to restrict its trawlers, such as Beijing's fishing ban.

"Our government encourages us to fish in the Paracels and Spratlys, as there are a lot of fish there and it has been our fishing ground for many years," Le Khuan, 52, said at his small house on Ly Son Island.

Other regional countries had policies encouraging offshore fishing to relieve pressure on coastal areas and increase their presence in their territorial waters, said a senior fisheries officer at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

"Of course, in disputed areas this means greater contact with other countries," Simon Funge-Smith said.

Beijing has occupied the Paracels, known as Xisha in Chinese, since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974, and also claims the Spratlys - as do, in whole or in part, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

Beijing claims as its historical territory virtually all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves.

With more Chinese patrol boats and fishermen of all nationalities on the waters and diplomatic tensions over disputed islands running high, observers warn an escalation is possible.

"There is a real risk … of an overreaction on either side - a fishing boat being fired upon by a patrol vessel," said Dr Sam Bateman, a maritime security expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Both Hanoi and Beijing "have become much more nationalistic in response to their sovereignty claims", he added.

The small fishing communities on Ly Son Island were shocked to find themselves at the centre of an international dispute for simply fishing where they had for generations, a local government official said.

"Fishermen here consider the fishing fields of Truong Sa and Hoang Sa their gardens, their rice fields," Pham Hoang Linh said.

"We try to educate our fishermen to avoid conflict. But we are operating in our own fishing fields, so there is no reason to be scared," said Linh, who is also a Ly Son native.

Unless a solution is found, further confrontations appear inevitable as the fishermen of Ly Son say they will keep plying the disputed waters.

"It is our only source of income. It is our territory, our waters. We will protect our sovereignty, we will keep on fishing," said Khuan.