Da Nang, Vietnam – When the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) placed its first oil rig, HD-981, about 130 nautical miles (nm) from the Vietnamese coast, at the beginning of May, relationships between the two countries became strained. Both claim sovereignty over the Paracel islands, an archipelago just off the coast – and China’s unilateral decision has even alerted the US, with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel singling out China’s “destabilising” actions against its maritime neighbours at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
The South China Sea is now a major flashpoint and topic of debate at high-level security meetings and multilateral forums. But far from the corridors of power, the standoff between China and Vietnam affects Vietnamese fishermen unable to fish in their usual waters.
|The Paracel Islands is a disputed archipelago between Vietnam and China [Al Jazeera]|
“It’s from the East Sea [as the Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea] that we make our profit and they [the Chinese] cannot prevent us from fishing in our own waters,” Huynh Thi Nhu Hoa, the owner of a fishing boat which collided with a Chinese vessel on May 26, told Al Jazeera.
“We were hit and then the boat sank, about 16nm from the oil rig and about 120nm from the Vietnamese coast,” explained Dang Van Nhan, the boat’s captain. “We lost the boat and our jobs during the high season.”
High season – Vietnam’s best period to catch fish in the South China Sea – coincides with a unilateral fishing ban imposed by Chinese authorities from April to August. Hoa and her husband can make a net profit of about $7,150, with one-sixth of the money going to her and the remainder to the 10 fishermen working on her boat.
“I have been fishing in that area for over 20 years. I have been harassed by the Chinese but never hit, even when I sailed to catch fish beyond 200nm,” the 42-year-old captain recalls.
Like many Vietnamese and Chinese fishing crews who catch swordfish, tuna or mackerel, Hoa’s crew also sail in international waters. The catch in these waters, or beyond the 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is regulated by member countries of the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs).
“There is no regional cooperation in the South China Sea and this allows Chinese authorities to impose a unilateral fishing ban,” Professor Erik Franckx, an expert on sea law, told Al Jazeera. “But they have no right to impose a ban on fishermen from other countries.”
But while there is no cooperation at a regional level – particularly between China and Vietnam on catch quotas – the reality at sea tells a different story.
“If we run out of gasoline or have problems with our fishing nets or, even worse, because of a storm, we do help each other,” said Tran Van Von, Hoa’s husband, as he recalled one episode when both Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen took refuge in a Vietnamese harbour a few years ago.
No man’s sea?
Chinese fishermen also sail within the Vietnamese EEZ, but “for us that is not a problem because everybody does his work and no one interferes with the other,” a boat manager who requested anonymity confirmed. By contrast, Vietnamese fishermen have had different experiences – like Nguyen Quach Phu, who last year was harassed and then forced to dock in a harbour in the Paracel archipelago.
While Chinese fishermen can fish in that area - despite the fishing ban - we have to move to the northwestern part of the archipelago where the catch is not plentiful.
“We were fishing about 14nm from the Hoang Sa archipelago [Paracel] when a big Chinese fishing vessel blocked our path. When we docked, they forced us to give them six tonnes of our catch [in order] to be released,” Quach Phu explained while sitting in the cabin of his boat in Da Nang harbour.
Quach Phu has just returned from the Paracel area, complaining that the placement of the oil rig has hindered his crew from fishing in zones they used to.
The rig is located about 17nm from Triton Island, part of the Paracel archipelago that China took by force from what was then known as South Vietnam in 1974. Chinese coastguard vessels regularly patrol the area around the rig.
“During the last trip I was 30nm from the oil rig and it was not possible to go further. While Chinese fishermen can fish in that area – despite the fishing ban – we have to move to the northwestern part of the archipelago where the catch is not plentiful like in the Paracel surroundings,” Quach Phu said.
Other fishermen who used to catch fish in the disputed maritime area have changed their routes, heading north, to avoid potential harassment from Chinese authorities.
“The oil rig is seriously affecting our fishing industry because its placement denies our fishermen access to that area,” Tran Van Linh, chairman of Da Nang’s Fishery Association, told Al Jazeera. According to Van Linh, who is also the chairman of a seafood and trading corporation, 15 boats from the Quang Ngai province, were confiscated last year by Chinese authorities.
In June 2013, China and Vietnam agreed to establish a hotline to deal with fishing incidents in South China Sea waters. But the accidents of the last few weeks and the deadlock during the June 18 talks in Hanoi between Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, indicate that the two governments are firmly standing by their respective positions.
For Van Linh, who comes from a family of fishermen, “The hope is that the two governments will be more responsible and might establish a common and peaceful fishing area. People in the ocean are alone and both governments have to work to support them.”