The standoff between China and Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig parked starting May 1 in disputed waters in the South China Sea took a violent turn on Tuesday when an armada of 40 Chinese fishing boats clashed with a smaller Vietnamese flotilla. In the lopsided encounter, a Vietnamese boat was rammed and subsequently sank, throwing 10 fisherman overboard. The fishermen were rescued by other Vietnamese boats, and there were no injuries.
But the ramming escalated the tensions over the deployment of the Chinese oil rig inside what Vietnam claims as its exclusive economic zone. Vietnam has been accusing China of ramming into or firing water cannon at Vietnamese vessels trying to get close to the rig, which is surrounded by Chinese fishing vessels and Coast Guard ships. The latest incident was the first time a Vietnamese boat had been sunk.
Each country accused the other as the aggressor. A report aired over Vietnam's state-run television network claimed that the latest incident took place at about 31.5 kilometers southwest of the oil rig. Hanoi accused a Chinese vessel of ramming the wooden Vietnamese boat on Monday then fleeing the scene.
"I call this an act of attempted murder because the Chinese sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and then ran away," said Tran Van Linh, president of the fisheries association in the Vietnamese port city of Danang. "We vehemently protest this perverse, brutal and inhuman action by the Chinese side." The Associated Press quoted Linh as saying that about 40 steel vessels surrounded a group of smaller wooden Vietnamese fishing vessels on Monday afternoon, then one rammed into the Vietnamese boat.
On the other hand, China's state-run news agency Xinhua called Vietnam the aggressor, saying that the Vietnamese fishing boat capsized when it rammed a Chinese vessel from the Chinese province of Hainan. China has also accused Vietnam of interfering with and attempting to disrupt the operations of the oil rig, which was set up by the state-run China National Offshore Oil Co.
In Beijing the Chinese foreign ministry said a Vietnamese boat had forced its way into the area around the rig and rammed into a Chinese ship. "I think the fact that this incident happened at all shows that Vietnam's illegitimate and illegal harassment and sabotage of China's regular operations are futile and will only hurt their interests," the foreign ministry spokesperson said.