Nguyen Van Loc, a 43-year-old Vietnamese fisherman, recalled in a report for the South China Morning Post days ago how he was attacked by Chinese coast guard vessels in the South China Sea in the summer of 2020.

He and his crew were sailing around the Paracel Islands, a place rich in fishing resources, in search of fish, when suddenly a Chinese ship rammed their vessel and capsized it. The thirteen crew members ended up in the water clinging to a fishing basket as they desperately called for help. Loc was repeatedly beaten, only to be stripped of fishing gear, his tools and the catch.

This was not the only time they endured aggression. A few years earlier, two Chinese boats with machine guns on deck and a crew armed with axes, swooped down on Loc’s boat and followed them as they tried to get home. 

The fishing grounds where he began working at the age of 15 are now in dispute with China, and they suffer intimidation and aggression every time they want to fish in its waters.

The area’s richness in fish is a magnet for fishermen, so they refuse to work in other overfished areas for a meager catch. Both Loc and his fellow fishermen are reluctant to leave these waters, where his father and grandfather once fished.  

Loc said, “Our vessels are small, if we are chased, then we run”

“We used to get scared. But now this is just our normal life.”

He added, “This fishing ground belonged to our ancestors, we will never give it up.”

According to Loc, such attacks in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands are very frequent, so much so that fishermen take it as part of their work routine.

The Ly Son fishermen’s association, says that around 98 Vietnamese fishing boats were destroyed by Chinese boats since 2014. This traditional fishing village remembers its 120 dead fishermen who fell victim to Chinese vessels over three decades or died when they did not receive help from Chinese boats during storms.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam reported in 2017 that more than 2300 fishermen had been injured, missing or killed in Vietnamese territorial waters in the South China Sea. According to Nguyễn Văn T, deputy minister at the time, between 2015 and 2017, “Chinese boats have attacked, sunk, destroyed or robbed more than 4,000 fishing boats of Vietnamese fishermen.”

The Chinese regime took possession of the Paracel Islands in 1974, following clashes with the South Vietnamese navy that left 75 Vietnamese soldiers dead.

Since then, Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea have not ceased. The strategic, geopolitical and economic importance, together with the enormous gas, oil and fishing riches of its waters, make it the focus of its ambitions. 

Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei historically share this maritime territory and each claims its share of sovereignty. 

Gray zone tactic

Stories of Chinese ships assaulting fishermen are not only occurring in Vietnam.

China and the Philippines are in dispute following the seizure of the Spratly Islands and the construction of seven artificial islands that serve as a military and strategic base for the Chinese regime. 

In July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that China’s sovereignty claims over that maritime territory have no legal or historical basis, and that those islands “form part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines.”

China refused to recognize the court’s ruling and continued to develop fishing activities and expand military installations on the disputed islands.

The same tactics of intimidation and aggression by Chinese vessels against fishermen are repeated.

In June 2019, a Philippine fishing boat was struck and sunk by a Chinese fishing vessel in waters near the disputed islands, 100 nautical miles northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan. The 22 crew members had to fend for themselves before being picked up by a Vietnamese fishing boat. The Philippine Navy eventually recovered them.

The Philippine Coast Guard discovered a flotilla of 220 Chinese fishing boats anchored in exclusive Philippine waters west of Palawan in March 2021. The government said the boats were not fishing and that their crews belonged to China’s maritime militia and demanded immediate withdrawal.

Vietnamese maritime defense and security expert Nguyen Thifang said China’s attacks on fishermen from other countries in the South China Sea in recent years are illegal and highlight the Chinese regime’s increasing use of gray zone tactics, which has made small neighboring countries feel a serious threat.

In an interview with VOA media, he said, according to the translation:

 “The fact is that China is adopting some kind of gray zone tactics in the South China Sea, they are trying to execute a low-intensity intrusion, trying to impose their own way gradually and increasing it without crossing the red line. They didn’t use warships, they didn’t use dangerous weapons, they used some kind of low-intensity tactics. This makes it quite difficult for a small country like Vietnam to deal with these kinds of tactics.”

The so-called gray zone tactic uses economic extortion, territorial occupation, intimidation, or violence without engaging in high-intensity armed conflict to achieve specific objectives. And within this tactic, China also uses international legal loopholes to gain advantages.

Chinese CGTN TV reported on October 10 that a Chinese hospital ship visited the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and provided medical services to about 5,000 people. This was the first time the Chinese regime revealed the number of troops stationed there. According to experts, this could serve as a precedent for a possible legal claim after the Hague Court’s ruling by demonstrating a human settlement on the disputed islands, thus giving them grounds for a territorial claim.

Meanwhile, U.S.-Philippine relations were again consolidated with the arrival of the new Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the mutual defense agreements. A gesture that could turn the balance in which the interests of most of the world’s nations may be at stake.

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