Vietnam has protested and dismissed a Chinese ban on fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin and the flashpoint South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, for the next three months.
China's ban on fishing between May 1 and August 16 in the area is invalid, Vu Van Tam, Vietnam’s deputy minister of agriculture, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The agriculture ministry is encouraging fishermen to continue fishing in waters over which Vietnam has sovereignty. Vietnam has also urged fishermen to assert the nation's sovereign jurisdiction in disputed waters in the East Sea.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a “nine-dash line” that encircles about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer strategically important and resource-rich sea. The maps fly in the face of competing claims from four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - and have drawn international condemnation.
In 1974, taking advantage of the withdrawal of American troops from the Vietnam War, China invaded the Paracel Islands. A brief but bloody naval battle with the forces of the then U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam ensued. Vietnam's behemoth northern neighbor has illegally occupied the islands ever since.
Last week, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang also said the country “resolutely opposed” China’s annual fishing ban, saying it violated international law and Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdictional rights.
According to Vietnamese officials, China's ban was part of an effort to take over Vietnam's exclusive maritime zone in the Gulf of Tonkin, despite fishing and delimitation agreements signed in 2000.
Since May 1, China has been enforcing its annual ban in northern parts of the East Sea. The affected area, stretching to waters between the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, encompasses the Paracels island chain, which China took from Vietnam by force in 1974, and the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef China seized control of in 2012, as well as the Gulf of Tonkin.
The ban, which was introduced in 1999, applies to both Chinese and foreign vessels fishing in the area.
China says the ban is aimed at protecting marine resources and promoting environmental awareness among fishermen, but analysts do not buy into this.
“Like every nation, China has a responsibility under international law to protect the ecological health and fish stocks in its waters, especially migratory fish on which neighboring states also reply," Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
"But that obligation is supposed to be fulfilled in consultation with neighbors, not arbitrarily," Poling said. “It is certainly not within China’s legal rights to enforce a fisheries ban in waters over which there is an active dispute. Even more worrying is that the ban includes at least some of the waters in the Gulf of Tonkin on which China and Vietnam reached a fisheries agreement in 2000.”
Analysts say that for the Vietnamese government, ignoring China’s fishing ban and insisting that its fishermen have a right to do so is important because it allows Hanoi to point out that it has consistently objected to, and certainly has never recognized, Chinese jurisdiction in these disputed waters. For Vietnamese fishermen, this is simply a matter of economic necessity.
But given that hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen and their crews have fallen prey to China's increasingly aggressive patrols around the disputed islands in the East Sea over the past years, they are yet again extremely vulnerable to future harassment or attacks by the Chinese.