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Fire-Gutted Vessel Highlights Vietnam - China Maritime Dispute

  • Marianne Brown

Pham Quang Thanh's fishing boat was allegedly attacked by Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea, Ly Son island, March 27, 2013.

Pham Quang Thanh's fishing boat was allegedly attacked by Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea, Ly Son island, March 27, 2013.

A long-running territorial dispute between Hanoi and Beijing has flared again after an incident this week in the South China Sea. A day after the Vietnamese government accused China of firing flares at a fishing boat near Chinese-controlled islands, Hanoi announced a plan to honor what it says are the islands’ original Vietnamese settlers.

On Wednesday, local newspapers continued to carry images of the burned-out cabin of a Vietnamese fishing boat which that Hanoi says was damaged by a Chinese navy vessel firing warning flares.

Authorities in Hanoi say the incident happened when the Vietnamese boat was returning from a fishing ground near the Paracel Islands. They say the flares fired by the Chinese made the boat catch fire.

At a news conference on Tuesday in Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Hong Lei, denied the Vietnamese vessels were damaged, but said the action was "necessary and legitimate."

The incident occurred near the Paracel Islands, an archipelago roughly equidistant from Chinese and Vietnamese coastlines. The islands, known as Xisha in Chinese and Hoang Sa in Vietnam, have been under Chinese control ever since the two nations fought over them in 1974.

The islands have long been a source of contention between the two countries. In recent years, China has imposed a seasonal fishing ban around the archipelago, which Vietnam has ignored. Hanoi has accused China of detaining hundreds of fishermen near the area and impounding their boats.

A day after protesting the latest alleged attack on its fishermen, Hanoi announced an annual ceremony to commemorate what it says are the original Vietnamese settlers of the Paracels. The event will be held next month on Ly Son island, the home of many fishermen who cast their nets in the South China Sea.

The state-run Viet Nam News Agency said this is the first time the event is to be held at the provincial level, with activities including lectures, art performances and boat races.

Bui Thi Minh Hang, a well-known participant in anti-China protests, says Hanoi’s attention to the islands’ Vietnamese links marks a shift.

"Over the years, the Vietnamese government has avoided recalling conflicts with China and the struggles have been forgotten," she said. "In the past few years, police have arrested those who have taken to the streets to show their support for Vietnamese fishermen."

China is Vietnam’s biggest trading partner, and analysts say Vietnam has to strike a fine balance between diplomacy and anti-China sentiment at home.

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