Viet boat sinks, raising tension with China

Hanoi and Beijing blame each other for incident in disputed waters

A WORSENING standoff between China and Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig deployed in disputed waters in the South China Sea flared after a collision sank a Vietnamese fishing boat for the first time.

Both sides were quick to blame the other yesterday for the sinking since the spat erupted on May 2, sparking almost daily skirmishes between their vessels near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea.

"It was rammed by a Chinese boat," Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.

The Vietnamese vessel sank on Monday afternoon after it was encircled by 40 Chinese fishing boats before being rammed, the Vietnamese government said on its website.

Its 10 crew members were rescued by other Vietnamese ships.

However, China said the Vietnamese vessel had intruded into a "precautionary area" around the oil rig and sank after it rammed a Chinese fishing boat.

"We once again urge the Vietnamese side to stop immediately all kinds of disruptive and damaging activities and avoid, in particular, dangerous actions on the sea," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

Monday's incident will likely escalate bilateral tensions and trigger more maritime clashes and sinkings, according to Sino- Vietnamese expert Li Yonglong of Xiamen University.

Hanoi says the oil rig lies within its 200-nautical-mile - 370km - exclusive economic zone, but Beijing insists that it is deployed in the waters of the Paracel islands, which the Chinese have occupied since 1974.

But Dr Li does not think it would set off another wave of anti-China riots, as Vietnam was stung by international condemnation and the economic consequences of unrest two weeks ago that claimed at least four lives and caused extensive damage to Chinese and Taiwanese factories.

Beijing also suspended part of their bilateral exchanges.

"Vietnam could have played the victim and gained sympathy and support from other countries. But the protests sparked concerns among some that their investments and nationals may not be safe," Dr Li told The Straits Times.

But the sinking also does not augur well for China, he said. The presence of Chinese vessels around the rig can only deepen perceptions of China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes, he added.

Singapore-based analyst Ian Storey said Monday's incident will intensify calls within Vietnam to mount a legal challenge against China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, as the Philippines has done.

Besides facing competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan in the South China Sea, China is also locked in a dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

Japan yesterday condemned the sinking as "very dangerous actions which threaten human life".

kianbeng@sph.com.sg