HANOI: Vietnam on Tuesday accused a Chinese ship of ramming and sinking one of its fishing boats, fanning territorial tensions over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in contested waters.
The incident, which China’s rival Japan described as “extremely dangerous”, comes during an ongoing tense confrontation between the communist neighbours in the South China Sea that has triggered international alarm.
The fishing vessel’s crew, who were rescued by other Vietnamese ships after the Monday afternoon incident, said their boat was encircled by 40 Chinese vessels before being attacked, the official Vietnam News Agency reported.
“I confirm that the fishing vessel was rammed,” an official with the Vietnam Regional Maritime Search and Rescue Coordination Centre in the central city of Danang told Agence France-Presse.
The sinking occurred about 12 nautical miles southwest of the rig, the official added, requesting anonymity.
“The 10 fishermen on board are on land now. They are safe. The ship sank.”
Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency blamed the Vietnamese vessel for the collision, saying it had “capsized after harassing and colliding with a Chinese fishing boat”.
It was the first ship reported sunk since the dispute flared in early May. The standoff has seen repeated skirmishes between dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels, including many civilian and fishing boats.
The confrontations have included reported rammings and the use of water cannon.
Relations between frequently testy neighbours Vietnam and China have plummeted over the oil rig’s presence, which has worsened an increasingly heated dispute over territorial claims in the area.
The oil rig is positioned in the vicinity of the contested Paracel Islands.
In Japan — which has a thorny maritime territorial dispute of its own with Beijing in the East China Sea — government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said if the report was true, it was an “extremely dangerous act”.
“It’s important that relevant countries abstain from unilateral actions that raise tensions and that the countries act cool-headedly, observing international laws,” said Suga.
Tensions over the oil rig sparked violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam earlier this month. Beijing says four Chinese citizens died in the unrest, while Vietnam says three Chinese died.
Hundreds of people have been detained over the riots and two Vietnamese men on Sunday became the first sentenced to jail, receiving terms of one and three years.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said last week that China’s placement of the rig in the contested area had “seriously threatened peace”.
He said during a meeting in Manila with President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines — which also is facing off with China in disputed waters — that the two leaders agreed Beijing should be condemned by the international community for its behaviour in the South China Sea.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbours, and has become increasingly assertive in staking those claims.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, have competing claims to parts of the sea.
Asia’s fishing fleet is increasingly on the frontline of growing territorial tensions in the region.
In recent years China has begun aggressively patrolling contested waters, using fishing bans and patrol boats to keep foreign trawlers out, according to Vietnamese officials and fishermen.
Hanoi says hundreds of fishing boat crews have been arrested by Chinese authorities over the past few years.
Beijing for its part estimates that more than 11,000 Chinese fishermen experienced attacks, robberies or detention by foreign vessels between 1989 and 2010.