On-the-ground report by Mai Thanh Hai
Thanh Nien, 12 June 2016
Translated by David Ha and Trinh-Don Nguyen
At the end of May and early June, the Chinese has not only accelerated the land reclamation and construction on the reefs forcefully seized from Vietnam since 1988, conducted surveillance activities around uninhabited reefs, but also stepped up to harass and drive away the Vietnamsese fishermen conducting their fishing routine over the Spartly waters.
Life at gunpoints
Trần Quang Phố from Bình Thuận province has been a captain with 20 years fishing experience behind his back, making his livelihood in the Spartly fishing ground. At noon on 31 May, 2016, as soon as I boarded his fishing boat BTh-96689 anchored at East London Reef, Phố shook his head and cautioned me: “Just yesterday morning we were under hot pursuit by a high-speed boat for almost an hour. Luckily we managed to escape.”
Phố told me that his boat was passing Châu Viên (Cuarteron Reef) as it sailed from Phan Vinh (Pearson Reef) to Đá Đông (East London Reef). Cuarteron Reef has been occupied by China since February 28th, 1988, and is currently under heavy reclaiming activities to build China’s largest and most important military base among the seven reefs seized from Viet Nam in the Spratlys. When Phố’s boat was about 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) from Cuarteron Reef, crew members saw a fast moving patrol boat with armed Chinese soldiers from the reef approaching and at some point reaching their boat as close as 3 or 4 meters away. This high-speed rubber patrol boat flew China’s flag in the back and was equipped with blue and red warning lights, heavy-duty sirens, and a megaphone. There were seven Chinese military men wearing steel combat helmets, striped uniforms, and red military life vests. One of the Chinese men stood filming at the foredeck, four sat holding on to their guns in the forecabin, one controlled the boat at the back, and one that looked like a commander who was busy communicating through his walkie-talkie.
Having served in the military for a number of years, fisherman Nguyễn Hữu Xạo from Bình Thuận was aware of the acute situation. According to Xạo’s account, the Chinese soldiers at first yelled at them on megaphone in Chinese which in hindsight seemed to have asked them to stop for a boat check. But since the Vietnamese men did not understand Chinese, they kept moving. The Chinese then pressed their boat as close as 3-4 meters to the fishing boat, and gestured them to stop. “We realized what the Chinese armed guards were up to when they pointed the guns at us.” The crew slipped away from the main deck into the main cabin, which allowed the captain to go full speed ahead toward the Vietnamese-controlled East London Reef.
After nearly one hour of hot pursuit, intimidating at gun point, circling and loud speak blaring, attempting to board, the Chinese only gave up the encounter when the Vietnamese fishing boat got closer to East London Reef which is guarded by Brigade 146 of the Vietnamese Navy’s Fourth Regional Command. “The Chinese only turned away when they were only 4 nautical miles from the Vietnamese naval garrison. That was 2:15 pm,” the captain breathed sign of relief.
Another crew member, 19-year old fisherman Tran Quang Tai from Binh Thuan added that this was not the first time their boat was chased and threatened by Chinese vessels. At the same location a week before the last incident, the same boat was blocked by the Chinese from going into the area. At that time, the Chinese not only pointed the gun at them but also pointed the cannon at the boat’s wheelhouse.
The full spectrum of China’s marine power
Soon after completing the construction of basic infrastructure on the 7 reefs or rocks taken from Vietnam by force, China has increased the number of its coast guard vessels and steel-hulled fishing boats in the area to patrol the water.
We were at the Johnson South-Collins Reefs area in the morning of May 29 when we noticed there were 8 Chinese vessels anchoring in the surrounding area including guided-missile frigate 545, coast guard ship 3501, ocean surveillance ships, and several steel-hulled fishing boats whose numbers had been erased.
A Vietnamese Navy’s officer who has stationed at Collins Reef (Trường Sa District, Khánh Hòa Province) said that the Chinese frigates and coast guard ships have been mainly deployed to drive away large Vietnamese ships such as military or large passenger ships carrying official visits from mainland when these ships approach within 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) of China-occupied reefs. If the approaching Vietnamese vessels were fishing boats, they would be blocked accordingly by Chinese fishing boats. And before dispatching the vessels, China’s military forces on their occupied reefs would fire flares and shout out threatening messages using megaphones.
Also in that morning, from the deck of the Vietnamese Navy’s ship HQ-571, we saw the fishing boat BTh-96435.TS from Bình Thuận Province being chased by a high-speed boat carrying men in striped uniforms from the Chinese Coast Guard’s ship 3501. The incident happened as the Vietnamese boat was fishing 6 nautical miles (11 km) off Johnson South Reef. Once the China’s high-speed patrol boat was spotted, crew on BTh-96435.TS called all other crew members who were still fishing on their individual basket boats back to the main boat and left the vicinity immediately.
Hoàng Hòa, a fisherman on the fishing boat BTh-98684.TS said that the number of Chinese fishing boats in the Spratlys has been increasing. These fishing boats use modern equipment such as enormous fishing light systems and very powerful engines to compete with Vietnamese fishermen. Not only that, they are very aggressive and ready to obstruct and ram into Vietnamese fishing boats in the waters surrounding China’s illegal military bases, particularly those near Chữ Thập (Fiery Cross Reef), Châu Viên (Cuarteron Reef), and Xu Bi (Subi Reef).
“Chinese fishing boats found shelter on the reefs that China illegally occupies during the last tropical depression in the middle of May. Each shelter had tens if not hundreds of boats and looked like a city at night”, said Nguyễn Văn Hiền, a fisherman on the boat PY-96896.
Ready to defend the Motherland
The Spartly archipelago has numerous uninhabited shoals spread over a vast and expansive area. But since early 2016 the Chinese boats have been anchoring in the area, and dispatch groups of 2 to 3 men travelling on small boats throughout these reefs. They swim and dive in the surrounding waters for what seems like surveillance efforts. The Chinese have paid particular attention to Ba Đầu (Whitsun Reef), Ho Li, Lâu Vơ (Loveless Reef) of the Union Banks, Eldad Reef, Bàn Than of the Tizard Banks, and Chim Biển (Owen Shoal). Whitsun Reef alone was visited by the China’s steel-hulled boat numbered 89029 and wood-hulled boat numbered 09088 anchored side by side for months.
On the journey from Collins Reef back to Sin Cowe Island in the afternoon of May 29th, 2016, we saw a Chinese unnumbered steel-hulled fishing boat anchored near Loveless Reef. Inside the reef, three groups with a total of six Chinese men were swimming and diving with ring buoys.
The Vietnamese navy stationed in the Spartlys has been on alert to safeguard the national sovereignty. As one official put it: “Even if it means sacrifice, we will not allow foreigners to install or place anything in the waters, or seize the unoccupied reefs”.
Despite the hot sunny day beating down on their faces, sweat flowing down from the forehead and around their TZK binoculars, with the AK swung over their shoulder, Vietnamese soldiers and marine police along with Vietnamese Naval Air Force’s anti-sub EC-225 and DHC-6 aircrafts, Vietnamese Coast Guard’s CASA C-212 aviocars, are always on guard to protect the Spratlys and to respond to any surprise intrusion.
Standing side by side with the Vietnamese soldiers are the Vietnamese fishermen. Undeterred by China’s gunpoints, they demonstrate the nation’s resilience by holding on to their traditional fishing grounds as captain Phố of BTh-96689.TS once said “If we are submissive to their coercion, stay away and give up fishing, they would be more aggressive. This part of the sea is ours, we can’t let them rob it from us…”
Translated from http://thanhnien.vn/doi-song/truong-sa-khong-yen-tinh-712558.html.