With more Chinese patrol boats and fishermen of all nationalities on the waters and diplomatic tensions over disputed islands running high, observers warn that an escalation is possible.
“There is a real risk ... of an overreaction on either side — a fishing boat being fired upon by a patrol vessel,” said Sam Bateman, a maritime security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
Both Hanoi and Beijing “have become much more nationalistic in response to their sovereignty claims,” he added.
Growing patriotic sentiment would also make it hard for either side to back down, with governments forced into “tit for tat” exchanges, he said.
Philippine fishermen have also complained of intimidation from rifle-brandishing Chinese personnel near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), about 230km from the Philippine coast.
Rival claims flared into a major diplomatic dispute in April when Manila accused Chinese fishermen of taking endangered species, such as clams and corals, from the area.
Philippine efforts to arrest the fishermen were thwarted when two Chinese surveillance vessels arrived at the scene.
And last month South Korea’s coast guard detained 23 Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea after a violent clash that left one Chinese crew member dead.
The small fishing communities on Ly Son Island are shocked to find themselves at the centre of an international dispute for simply fishing where they have for generations, a local government official said.
“Fishermen here consider the fishing fields of Truong Sa and Hoang Sa their gardens, their rice fields,” Pham Hoang Linh said in an interview on the island.
He said arrest by China is “the worst fear” of the families of the some 3,000 fishermen on the island, as without the income from fishing — typically between about US$100 and US$250 a trip — many islanders risk destitution.
Unless a solution is found, further confrontations appear inevitable as the fishermen of Ly Son say they will keep plying the disputed waters.