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China-Vietnam Fishing Boat Incident: US State Department Gets It Wrong – Analysis

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The US State Department regularly criticizes China for its policy and behavior in the South China Sea.  Most of the time its statements contain elements of truth interspersed with the usual criticism of  China.  However the 6 April statement entitled “PRC reported sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea” stands out because of its false and unsupported accusations as well as its hypocrisy.  https://www.state.gov/prcs-reported-sinking-of-a-vietnamese-fishing-vessel-in-the-south-china-sea/

The statement expressed serious concern about “reports of the PRC’s sinking of a Vietnamese vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands”. According to spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, “this incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims.”  China has indeed tried to assert its discredited nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea.  But the China-Vietnam dispute over the Paracels and their attendant maritime zones is quite separate and different from its dispute with Vietnam and other ASEAN claimants over the Spratly features, maritime space and their resources there. 

Indeed, China’s claim to the Paracels is not part of its nine-dashed line historic claim.  The Paracels are a separate group of islands in the northwestern South China Sea that China has occupied for 45 years having seized them from South Vietnamese forces in 1974. Since the U.S. does not take sides in the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, the U.S. condemnation of China for defending its claim to the resources in its  territorial waters and EEZ seems biased. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territorial_disputes_in_the_South_China_Sea

 China often arrests Vietnamese fishing boats in its claimed 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial waters and 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Paracels.  https://vietnamnews.vn/politics-laws/674783/us-voices-serious-concern-over-chinas-actions-in-east-sea.html  This is not new.  But the collision with and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat is relatively rare and thus prompted the US statement of concern –and got the attention of analysts and the media. Nevertheless, it is not clear who was at fault.  Vietnam claims that China’s maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sunk its vessel. https://www.rappler.com/nation/257389-philippines-reaction-china-sinking-of-vietnam-ship-south-china-sea 

But China claimed that “the boat had illegally entered the area [its waters], refused to leave, and then collided with a Chinese vessel after making dangerous maneuvers.”  By “dangerous maneuvers” it meant the Vietnamese vessel “suddenly turned sharply”. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/south-china-sea-and-the-coronavirus-new-vietnam-china-incident-spotlights-old-realities/

China’s coast guard rescued the fishermen and then also captured and towed two other vessels into port. https://dskbd.org/2020/04/04/viet-nam-demands-china-to-punish-its-coast-guard-ship-for-sinking-vietnamese-fishing-boat-in-the-paracels/ The vessels were fishing near Woody Island—the location of Sansha which is China’s administrative capital for both the Paracels and the Spratlys. The 2.1 square kilometer island has a population of more than 1000, roads, banks and a small airport that accommodates both civilian and military aircraft. Fishing off this particular island in violation of China’s laws and claim to sovereignty is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. This in itself does not justify intentionally sinking a violaters’  boat—if that is indeed what happened–but it helps explain why it happened.

China was trying to enforce its claim to the Paracels, their territorial sea and EEZ and the resources therein.  Such a claim is not “illegal”. Indeed, it is in keeping with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – that Treaty that the U.S. – alone among the major powers – refuses to ratify.  It is true that China claims closing lines around the Paracels – which is contrary to UNCLOS.  But Vietnamese vessels frequently fish in what would be China’s legitimate 12 nm territorial sea and 200 nm EEZ—assuming the features belong to China. 

The State Department statement goes on to link this incident to a series of Chinese actions “since the outbreak of the global pandemic” such as establishing “new research stations on military bases.”  But China has as good a claim to the features as several other claimants and like other claimants claims the right to build such installations on its territory.  All other claimants to features in the South China Sea – – Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – – have built military bases on those they occupy.

The statement concludes by urging the U.S. to focus on “supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction” to take advantage of other states.  This implies that these actions were timed to exploit the “distraction” and prompted some media and analysts to expand on this theme.  For example, Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center said “I think China is exploiting the US Navy’s coronavirus challenges to improve its position in the South China Sea by giving the appearance it can and will operate there at will while the US is hamstrung.” https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/asia/coronavirus-china-us-military-south-china-sea-intl-hnk/index.html  

Schuster noted the departure of the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group from the arena during the pandemic was followed by large scale Chinese naval exercises in the South China Sea on the heels of its departure.  This is quite a reach.  If there was any connection between these two events at all, the exercises were in response to the strike group’s presence – not its withdrawal.  The building of marine science installations and the exercises were likely planned long in advance.

Moreover this allegation drips with hypocrisy.  During the pandemic, the U.S. has continued and even increased the frequency of its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) that challenge with warships China’s claims to some low-tide features as sovereign territory as well as its prior permission regime for entering its territorial waters around some high-tide features it occupies.  It has conducted two FONOPs since the corona virus epidemic breakout was recognized in China– one on 25 January by the Montgomery near China-occupied Spratly features https://news.usni.org/2020/01/28/uss-montgomery-conducts-first-2020-fonop-in-south-china-sea and one on 10 March by the McCampbell in the Paracels. defpost.com/u-s-navy-destroyer-uss-mccampbell-sails-near-disputed-paracel-islands-in-south-china-sea/ These FONOPs threaten to use force if China does not comply with the U.S. unilateral interpretation of a Convention it refuses to ratify.

But Vietnam has also long had similar restrictions on freedom of navigation for warships in its waters and they have been repeatedly challenged by U.S. warships undertaking FONOPs. https://policy.defense.gov/OUSDP-Offices/FON/ 

Indeed, U.S. challenges of prior permission for warships to undertake innocent passage in territorial waters around the Paracels and Spratlys are directed not only at China but at Vietnam who also claims them.  Moreover, Vietnam has militarized many features that are not above water at high tide – and thus cannot be claimed as ‘territory’.  So the U.S. FONOPs that challenge China’s claim to such features are also challenging Vietnam’s claims – which the statement ignores.  Indeed given that both parties – according to the U.S.–are violating the same rules, the U.S. seems to be favoring Vietnam in the dispute before all the facts are known.

This inaccurate and prejudiced statement unnecessarily adds to the already increasing tension in the region. 


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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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