HANOI/BEIJING, March 1 (Reuters) - Vietnam summoned Chinese diplomats to complain about the treatment of Vietnamese fishermen seeking shelter from bad weather on disputed islands but China denied on Thursday that it had used force to expel the men it accused of illegal fishing.
China and Vietnam have overlapping claims to large parts of the South China Sea and various remote islands and reefs and even seemingly minor disputes involving fishermen raise concern about confrontation between the uneasy neighbours.
The incident happened on Feb. 22, when 11 fishermen were prevented from approaching the Paracel Islands to avoid strong winds, and were then beaten and had their property taken, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said.
“It runs counter to the spirit of humanitarianism and gravely threatened lives and left serious property damage for the Vietnamese fishermen,” the Vietnamese spokesman said in a statement.
He said Vietnam has demanded China avoid repeating “such wrongful actions and compensate the Vietnamese fishermen for the damage”, adding officials had met Chinese diplomats in Hanoi to discuss the matter.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said no force was used in what he termed an illegal fishing incident.
“Recently, in the seas around the Paracels, China legally dealt with illegal Vietnamese fishing activities, and expelled them from the area, which is completely proper and legal,” he told a daily news briefing.
“What should be stressed is that China did not use force in carrying out the law, and did not board the Vietnamese ships. Relevant reports do not accord with the facts.”
China has always dealt with Vietnamese fishermen in a humanitarian way and provided help to them when needed, something Vietnam appreciated, Hong added.
“We demand Vietnam earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and take effective measures to strengthen the education and management of their fishermen and stop illegal fishing to maintain the overall development of Sino-Vietnames ties.”
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea. China’s claim is the largest, covering a big U-shape over most of the sea’s 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
Tension has risen in the region in the past year or so on concern that China is becoming more assertive in its claim to waters believed to be rich in oil and gas and straddling key shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East.
China has insisted on handling the disputes on a one-on-one basis rather than multilaterally, a strategy some critics have described as “divide and conquer”. China says its sovereignty is indisputable and historically based. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Hanoi newsroom)