A Vietnamese fishing boat in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. (D. Schearf/VOA)
A Vietnamese fishing boat in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. (D. Schearf/VOA)

After China attempted to put limits on the disputed South China Sea, Vietnam responded with a message to its fishermen: just keep fishing, within the law. 

The Southeast Asian nation, a major world exporter of seafood, told provincial governments along the coast to “intensify” oversight of the fishers under their safeguard. 

 The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development sent a letter to the local governments last week, telling them to inform fishermen of China’s “invalid” fishing ban but also to “encourage fishers to stick to normal production within the limits of Vietnam's territorial waters.” Vietnam rejected China’s seasonal ban from May 1 to Aug. 16 in the South China Sea, which is claimed by both nations, a month after saying China also sank a boat carrying Vietnamese fishermen who have been rescued. 

“The People’s Committees of provinces and cities shall direct functional agencies to intensify the management and supervision of fishing activities of fishing ships at sea,” said a report from VietnamNet, the official news site of the Ministry of Information and Communications. 

The agriculture ministry provided a hotline where people should report any “unexpected incidents” to its Department of Fisheries Control in the wake of China’s announcement. 

The fishing fracas threatens to inflame a South China Sea where multi-nation tensions have already been heating up in recent months. Washington warned Beijing against “exploiting” the COVID-19 pandemic to distract from its maritime aggressions in April, after China sent a ship back to the disputed waters, possibly to explore for oil.  

Vietnam protested the ship’s return, as well as the earlier sinking of a fishing boat. The Philippines, which has vacillated in its maritime criticism of China, took the rare step of standing by Vietnam after the sinking. Even Indonesia, not a frequent party to the South China Sea disputes, sank Chinese ships in 2019 that it accused of illegal fishing. 

Malaysia also protested the return of China’s exploratory vessel in April. The United States showed its opposition, to what it called, China’s “coercive and unlawful actions” in the South China Sea last week by dispatching the USS Gabrielle Giffords, named after a former Arizona congresswoman, injured in a 2011 shooting. 

“Routine presence operations, like Gabrielle Giffords’, reaffirms the U.S. will continue to fly and sail freely, in accordance with international law and maritime norms, regardless of excessive claims or current events,” Vice Adm. Bill Merz, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, said. 

The South China Sea, seen as a rich source of fisheries and oil, has overlapping territorial claims by several Asian nations.  

Vietnam has already seen a decline in its fishing sector because of COVID-19, including a decrease in seafood trade with China. 

Nguyen Viet Thang, chair of the Vietnam Association of Fisheries, asked the government to defend local fishermen and oppose China’s attempt at a summer fishing ban. 

“This regulation has no legal value for the seas under Vietnam's sovereignty,” he said in a letter to the government on behalf of the association. “Fishermen of Vietnam completely have the right to fish in the waters under its sovereignty.” 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam has responded accordingly. 

“Vietnam rejects China’s unilateral decision,” Le Thi Thu Hang, the ministry spokesperson, said. 

She said, using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea, “Given the current regional and global context, Vietnam asks China not to further complicate the situation in the East Sea.” 

China has said Vietnam does not have a right to protest the fishing ban.