South China Sea Tensions Flare After Boat Collision, Arrests

Tensions flared in the South China Sea today as armed Philippine police arrested Chinese fishermen near a disputed shoal and Vietnam said Chinese boats rammed into Vietnamese vessels during a confrontation in waters close to islands claimed by the two countries.

The Chinese fishing boat and its crew were detained by the Philippines near the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in Chinese, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, demanding the release of the fishermen. Vietnam separately said Chinese vessels intentionally collided with its boats near an exploration rig placed by China close to the Paracel Islands.

The incidents come as China takes a more assertive stance on maritime territorial issues that are souring relations with neighbors from Vietnam to Japan. U.S. President Barack Obama last month visited Asia to reassure key allies of U.S. support in the face of China’s rising economic and military power, while Asian countries have been pushing China to agree to a code of conduct to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea.

“It shows the regional concern that China has yet to agree or commit to a timetable with respect to the code of conduct -- frustration that China hasn’t done that,” said Terence Lee, an assistant professor of political science at National University of Singapore, referring to the Philippine and Vietnamese actions. “Finding some way forward concretely without the use of force is imperative for the countries in the region.”

‘Disruptive’ Actions

At a briefing in Beijing, Hua accused the Philippines and Vietnam of violating its sovereignty over the island chains. She accused Vietnam of being “disruptive.”

China has 80 vessels in the area, including seven military craft, some of which fired water at Vietnamese ships backed by low-flying Chinese aircraft, Ngo Ngoc Thu, Vice Commander of Vietnam’s Coast Guard, said at a briefing. Six Vietnamese officers were hurt by broken glass during the clash, he said.

“The situation is extremely tense,” Thu said. While Vietnam seeks to resolve the dispute through negotiations, “all endurance has limits.” “If China vessels continue to hit ours, we will have similar moves to respond in self-defense.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is seeking the code for the oil-and gas-rich waters in the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. The talks have made little progress since China agreed last July to start discussions, before introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

Armed Men

China has said it is prepared to hold bilateral talks over territorial issues. It has rejected a Philippine move for international arbitration on their claims to parts of the South China Sea.

Philippine police confirmed they detained a Chinese vessel carrying 11 crew. The fishermen were on board the boat Qiongqionghai 09063, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the Tanmen fishing association in the Hainan island city of Qionghai. Another fishing boat fled the scene, it said.

The armed men forced themselves onto the boat at the Half Moon Shoal and fired four or five shots into the air before taking control, Xinhua said.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said the Chinese crew was arrested to “enforce maritime laws and to uphold Philippine sovereign rights.” The government will handle the case in a “just, humane and expeditious manner” after the Chinese fishermen were found with a large number of endangered species, it said by e-mail.

The Philippines in March called China a “threat to our security” as it protested Chinese attempts to prevent resupply of a Philippine vessel in the area.

‘Indisputable Sovereignty’

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and its adjacent waters including the barrier reefs,” Hua said. “We ask the Philippine side to release the vessel and the crew. And we urge the Philippine side to stop taking further provocative actions.”

Vietnam protested this month’s placement of the HD-981 rig and deployment of vessels in an area it considers part of the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh told Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi yesterday by phone, according to a posting on the website of Vietnam’s foreign ministry. Vietnam demanded that China withdraw the rig and vessels and hold talks to resolve the issue, Minh said.

“Vietnam will take all suitable and necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,” Minh said, according to the posting.

‘War of Words’

The rig’s location is near the Paracel Islands, which are now under Chinese control, said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Vietnam also claims the Paracels, and both countries, as well as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, have claims to other territory in the South China Sea.

“The two countries are likely to engage in a war of words for some time,” Li said by e-mail, before news broke of the collision. “Vietnam will openly criticize China in the international arena and mobilize other Asean countries, especially those claimant countries, to put pressure on China,” he said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing in Washington that the Chinese move to establish a rig near the Paracels was “provocative and unhelpful” given recent regional tensions.

Hua called the U.S. “irresponsible” for commenting on issues of China’s sovereignty.

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson, and John Boudreau

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