News - January 21, 2019 | 11:07 pm PT

45 years on, battle for Paracel Islands shows no signs of ending

Vietnamese fishermen cannot enter a traditional fishing ground off their country’s central coast because of China’s illegal claims over the islands.

A boat from Da Nang that was hit by a Chinese ship on May 26, 2014. Photo by Nguyen Dong

"A group of Chinese soldiers jumped on my ship, took control of it and hit me repeatedly with batons," Nguyen Tan Hai, 30, captain of a fishing boat, recalls that night in May 2014.

The Chinese only stopped when he had fainted. They then turned their vandalistic attention to doors, the communications system, the sonar, and any other equipment they saw on board.

When they were stealing all the fish and oil, they came across Le Anh, the crew member. Like Hai, he too was assaulted and left unconscious.

When he regained consciousness early the next day, Hai felt pain all over, and cold and hot at the same time.

He was aware that the other crew members, who had been diving for sea cucumbers and escaped the assault, were taking him and Anh back to shore.

Le Anh (L) and Nguyen Tan Hai (R) at the hospital in May 2014 and part of the ship that was hit by the Chinese. Photo by Pham Linh

The name Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) has been etched in his memory since childhood.

Like many other kids in Binh Chau Commune, Binh Son District, Quang Ngai Province, he grew up hearing much about the disputed islands off Vietnam’s central coast in the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam.

"Hoang Sa belongs to us but China has taken it," old men would say in his fishing village.

"Your father has gone fishing in Hoang Sa," his mother would tell him.

His village is famous for men diving at night to catch sea cucumber.

At 15 Hai went on his first fishing expedition. Soon he became very skilled and was chosen to sail to Hoang Sa a long distance away.

He was 16 when he first set eyes on Hoang Sa. In 2012, when he was 22, Hai was handed over the family’s offshore fishing vessel, and he became its captain. For two years things were uneventful though he would set sail come rain or come shine.

"If Chinese ships chased after us, we would run and if they stopped, we would get back to work."

Everything changed in May 2014.

Vietnam’s China shock

On May 1, 2014 the Chinese brought an oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981, and installed it in the waters off Hoang Sa, changing the status quo in the East Sea dramatically as innocent fishermen like Hai were to discover.

On May 18 Tinh Ky Port in Quang Ngai was more crowded than usual. It always used to be filled with the bright smiles of local women waiting for boats full of fish brought back by their husbands and sons from the sea, but that day pain and worry were evident on their faces.

A few days before that news had filtered in that after the oil rig was anchored, Chinese ships had chased after, fired water cannons at and rammed Vietnamese fishing vessels near Hoang Sa.

Tran Thi De in Quang Ngai Province collaspes after learning that her son was taken by the Chinese in May 2014. Photo by Pham Linh

It was on May 16 that Hai’s family came to know his ship had been attacked.

Dang Thi Thom, his mother, arrived at the port at dawn and was waiting impatiently for her son. It was noon by the time his vessel arrived. He and Anh were quickly taken to hospital for emergency aid with severe injuries on their body and head.

Five years since that night the incident still haunts Hai.

In the middle of the night the Chinese ship, which was five times bigger than theirs, had caught him and Anh off guard.

That summer marked a turning point for Vietnamese fishermen going to Hoang Sa, with China persisting with its strong-arm tactics since.

Hoang Sa through history

Dang Cong Ngu is ostensibly the chairman of Hoang Sa, which administratively comes under the central city of Da Nang.

"Many people have asked me if I have ever visited Hoang Sa? The question feels like a knife through my heart. How can I go there when it is still occupied by China?"

He has been chairman for more than five years but is due to retire this year. So, tragically for him, that dream might never be fulfilled.

The islands includes about 130 small coral islands and reefs. They are distributed over a maritime area of around 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles), with a land area of approximately 7.75 square kilometers. Hoang Sa plays a crucial role in global trade as it straddles the international maritime route from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Militarily, its strategic location cannot be overemphasized since it lies right in the middle of the East Sea and could help control both maritime and air routes.

For Vietnamese fishermen, the waters around Hoang Sa has been an abundant source of seafood for generations.

In the first half of the 17th century, the Nguyen Lords, a dynasty of rulers in what is now southern and central Vietnam, created an administrative division to watch over Hoang Sa, sent people to the islands to draw maps and generally tried to establish their suzerainty over them. In 1834 Vietnam erected a sovereignty stele on the islands.

During their colonial rule in Vietnam from 1884 to 1945, the French continued to claim and manage Hoang Sa on behalf of Vietnam and protected Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands.

In 1959 China sent a group of soldiers disguised as fishermen to Hoang Sa to seize its western part. Authorities in the Republic of Vietnam, a government that existed in the south of Vietnam between 1955 and 1975 until reunification, discovered the Chinese mission and arrested 82 men and seized five armed vessels.

The soldiers were sent back to China, and the South Vietnam administration tightened its hold over Hoang Sa. In conducting its foreign affairs, the republic always emphasized its authority over the islands.

But China never accepted this.

Battle for the Paracel Islands

On January 15, 1974, China announced that the South Vietnamese had trespassed on its land and that Hoang Sa belonged to it. It then sent troops to the islands and planted Chinese flags there.

On the 19th a marine force from the Republic of Vietnam arrived to take down the flags only to be shot at by the Chinese soldiers. Two died.

At 10 a.m. that day began what has been named the "Battle for the Paracel Islands," an attempt by the South Vietnamese navy to expel the Chinese from Hoang Sa.

There were four battleships on either side while the Chinese also had two submarines equipped with rockets and torpedoes.

Just 30 minutes later 75 South Vietnamese soldiers lay dead and China had captured Hoang Sa.

On January 20, 1974, Vuong Van Bac, the South Vietnamese foreign minister, met the then U.S. ambassador in Saigon and demanded help. But the Vietnam War had almost come to an end and the U.S.’s will had sapped by then. In April 1975 Vietnam reunited, but China still held on to Hoang Sa.

At bilateral land border talks between Hanoi and Beijing in October 1977, the Vietnamese delegation’s leader, Phan Hien, underlined Vietnam's sovereignty over the two archipelagos of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa (Spratly). However, Vietnam’s proposal to place the two islands on the agenda was rejected by China.

On December 11, 1982, the Vietnamese government created Hoang Sa District as part of Quang Nam Province, but no official has been able to set foot on that islands ever since.

Chinese attacks

Seventeen nautical miles from China’s oil rig, a fishing vessel belonging to Huynh Thi Nhu Hoa and her husband Tran Van Bon of the nearby Da Nang City was rammed and sunk by a Chinese ship on May 26, 2014.

The Chinese even prevented other Vietnamese fishing vessels from coming to the rescue of the boat’s crew, but luckily the 10 men on board saved themselves.

The vessel, DNa 90152TS, was badly damaged. China denied attacking a Vietnamese fishing vessel, claiming in fact the latter sunk after ramming a Chinese ship.

When the Vietnamese media released a video shot by the fishermen showing the Chinese ship attacking the Vietnamese boat, China remained silent.

A video showing a Chinese ship ramming Vietnamese fishing boat DNa 90152TS on May 26, 2014.

These days DNa 90152TS lies in a boatyard in Da Nang. Hoa and Bon brought what was left of their vessel to shore to prove what the Chinese had done.

Hoa has a wish: to display the corpse of her vessel at the Hoang Sa Exhibition House in Da Nang as an item representing a historic period in the East Sea. But the museum has rejected her request saying it cannot allocate any space for such an item.

So it lies in the boatyard, rusty and untouched, telling the tragic story of a single family.

The Da Nang ship, DNa 90152TS, now lies in a boatyard. Photo by Nguyen Dong

"Sometimes when I pass by, I stop for a while just to look at it [DNa 90152TS], and it really hurts," Hoa said with tears in her eyes.

Five years ago she went to a local lawyer, determined to take the Chinese ship that had sunk DNa 90152TS to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany.

Lawyer Do Phap took up the case and offered to work free of charge. But it has gone nowhere with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for years ignoring all demands from Vietnamese fishermen.

Bui Tan Ngot, a fishermen, said what Chinese sailors had once said when they chased away Vietnamese fishing boats: "These are Chinese waters, Vietnamese fishermen must go away now or the consequences will be serious."

His boat was rammed last year near Hoang Sa.

Fishermen on the boat of Bui Tan Ngot that is rammed by Chinese in 2018. Photo by Pham Linh

"I’ve been sailing for almost 20 years. There was a time when Vietnamese and Chinese fishing boats worked side by side with no problems," he said.

"We’ve always thought of Hoang Sa as something that has belonged to Vietnam for generations."

According to Vietnamese fishermen, China these days sends 12,000-15,000 fishing boats to Hoang Sa waters each year with electric and small hole nets to fish in whatever manner they want. Noticeably most of the boats are well armed.

The Chinese have banned Vietnamese fishermen in the area, chased after them and arrested them.

Nguyen Thanh Hung, chairman of the fishery union in Binh Chau Commune of Binh Son District, said even after China removed its oil rig in July 2014 Chinese attacks continued to occur, with around 20 Vietnamese fishing boats reporting being rammed each year since 2016.

Fear rules

A fisherman in Quang Ngai and his son after he returns from a trip in which his boat was attacked by the Chinese. Photo by Pham Linh

Fewer and fewer fishermen dare to sail to the vicinity of the islands.

Boat owners who want to do so find it hard to get a crew. Even if they do, it is a common story that they have to pay their men in advance.

Vo Van Luu of Quang Ngai was chased after, robbed and rammed in 2014, 2015 and 2016, but still borrowed money from banks and other sources to build a VND4-billion ($172,200) fishing vessel. By late 2017 he had his biggest ship ever but could not find a crew.

He traveled eight hours south to the beach town of Nha Trang just to look for a crew.

"I invited them to parties. I paid them a bonus for Tet [Lunar New Year] even before hiring them yet failed to convince them."

Without a crew, he went by himself but was forced to catch spanner crabs since he could do it alone. But the crabs can only be caught in daylight, and so fleeing from the Chinese was not easy.

"Early last year I was rammed by the Chinese. They took my net and all the crabs I had caught."

He said 2018 was possibly his most difficult year ever: Without a crew, he could only make two trips.

And the situation just keeps getting worse.

A month after he was beaten half to death, Hai went fishing again. He gave his ship to his older brother’s family and built another fishing boat together with some others in the village.

The country’s fisheries resources are depleting, Nguyen Viet Nghia, deputy head of the Research Institute for Maritime Fisheries, said late last year.

With a belligerent China in the way, looking for new sources is a hard task.

A number of Vietnamese fishing vessels trespass into other countries’ waters, prompting a "yellow card" warning from the European Commission (EC) in October 2017. This is a warning issued to countries involved in illegal fishing.

The commission informed member countries about Vietnam’s failure to meet requirements on prevention of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Vietnam’s fisheries exports have since been subject to intense scrutiny, with all seafood containers being inspected in a process that could take three to four weeks and cost 500 euros ($633) per container.

A rejected container can cost an exporter nearly $12,000, and the risk of rejection is high.

The EC had initially said it would remove the yellow card last June, but did not and said instead it would consider doing so in January this year.

Among those who have illegally gone to other countries looking for fish are Hai and his brother.

In late 2016 Hai was arrested for intruding the waters belonging to France and jailed for five months.

He said he was aware of the risk but had to take it because of the debts he owed from building the ship.

"What else can I do?"

By Pham Linh - Nguyen Dong - Duc Hoang