The nations of the South China Sea region are looking for clarification on the chain of events that led to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat last week near the Paracel Islands. The fishing boat sank on Wednesday after being rammed by a Chinese vessel according to a Vietnamese official. China claims otherwise. According to Beijing, its ship received a distress call from the fishing boat and arrived in the area as it was sinking. Subsequently, the Chinese ship sought aid for the fishing boat’s crew. China’s statement made no mention of a vessel ramming the Vietnamese boat, nor did it clarify who rescued the sailors.
If the offending vessel turned out to belong to the People’s Republic of China it would not come as a surprise to any Western Pacific nation-states. There have been several incidents of Chinese coast guard or maritime militia ships attacking Vietnamese fishing boats in recent years. The Chinese have made a routine habit out of driving non-Chinese fishing boats away from its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Normally, it is the coast guard, or maritime militia that performs these duties. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stays out of these disputes and instead is used primarily when foreign warships sail in close proximity to China’s claims. Fishermen have been caught up in the South China Sea disputes often in recent years. The territorial claims made by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and a host of other nations have limited the areas where fishing can take place without harassment.
Western powers have increased their naval presence in the South China Sea to promote the freedom of navigation. Contrary to China’s claim that the waterway is solely its possession, the world views the South China Sea as international waters. The United States has taken a strong position in championing freedom of navigation rights. US warships make frequent transits of the sea, and purposely maneuver close to islands China has claimed, often inviting aggressive pushback from Beijing.