A territorial dispute between Vietnam and China has escalated this week after Chinese forces arrested 21 fishermen. Vietnam says the fishermen detained near disputed waters in the South China Sea are being held for ransom. Beijing has urged its neighbor to stop what it calls “illegal poaching” in the area.
Less than 24 hours after the Vietnamese government urged China to release 21 fishermen arrested near the disputed Paracel Islands, Beijing said the group is being held for territorial violations.
At a news briefing in the Chinese capital, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei asked Hanoi to stop fishermen from entering the area again.
Hong Lei said recently more than 100 Vietnamese ships had entered waters around the Paracel Islands, an area controlled by China but claimed by Vietnam.
Hong Lei says on March 4, the fishermen were detained in the area. He says authorities acted in accordance with the law and urged Vietnam to better educate and manage fishermen so they would stop their illegal poaching in China.
The comments came a day after Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement demanding the release of the fishermen. whom they claimed were being held for a ransom of $11,000.
The Vietnamese government has advised families not to pay and are pressing Beijing for their release.
The incident has put a lot of pressure on local people, says fisherman Le Van Loc from Quang Ngai province. He was detained by the Chinese while he was sailing near the islands in 2010.
Loc says, as a Vietnamese citizen, he is angry because the islands belong to Vietnam. He says families are told not to pay the ransom while the government demands the release of those detained. This had made life difficult for families.
The incident is the latest in a long-running dispute about territory in the South China Sea. Last year, both sides signed a series of maritime agreements aimed at resolving tensions. However, Vietnam has continued to protest Chinese activity on or near the islands.
Earlier this month, Vietnam sent six Buddhist monks to re-establish abandoned temples on another series of islands claimed by both countries in the South China Sea.
An editorial in China's official Global Times newspaper says on Wednesday the move to send monks there was a "religious guise" to "permanently claim sovereignty" over the islands.
Vietnamese government spokesman Nghi denied the claims.
He says the plan was a normal and civilian activity.
Starting next month, the monks are to refurbish the temples and hold rituals there for at least six months. Vietnam abandoned the temples in 1975. It recently renovated them as part of wider efforts to re-establish its claims to the Spratlys.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim portions of the more than 100-island chain. Beijing insists the entire 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea is part of its territory. It has become increasingly assertive about its maritime claims in recent months, regularly interfering with foreign fishing boats and oil exploration vessels.
Fisherman Loc says he will continue fishing near the Paracel islands in the future. However, while China is strengthening its patrols, he will stay away.
He says he still sees many boats heading to the islands, because they are near Vietnam’s coastline.