HANOI (Reuters) - Six Vietnamese fishermen have been detained by the crew of a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea, officials of both countries said on Friday, the latest in a two-month fracas between the Communist neighbours over maritime sovereignty.
Authorities from the two countries disagreed on where the boat was detained Thursday morning. Vietnamese officials said it was in disputed waters 56 km (35 miles) off the coast of China’s Hainan Island and 290 km off Vietnam.
The arrests risk escalating the biggest breakdown in ties between Vietnam and China in three decades. China’s top diplomat met Vietnam’s leadership last month to try to defuse tensions, but talks ended in stalemate.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the fishermen had “broken the law” by working in Chinese territorial waters 7 nautical miles south of the city of Sanya on Hainan.
“Relevant Chinese organs are investigating,” said ministry spokesman Hong Lei. “China again requires Vietnam to take necessary measures and strengthen discipline and education of fishermen to prevent similar incidents from taking place again.”
Vietnamese authorities lost contact with the fishermen on Thursday morning, when a crew member radioed authorities to say men from a Chinese vessel had come aboard the boat.
“One of the fisherman called local authorities, saying they were being arrested,” an official from central Quang Ngai province told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity. “We’ve been unable to identify the Chinese boat.”
Those arrests were the first since the row erupted in early May, when China deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig and commenced drilling 240 km off the coast of Vietnam in waters claimed by both countries.
That angered many Vietnamese, sparking rare protests and an orgy of arson, rioting and looting of Chinese factories in three industrialised provinces. Many turned out to be Taiwanese-owned.
Vietnam says the $1 billion platform is in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf. China has said the rig is operating within its waters near the Paracel Islands, which it occupies. Both sides have argued for decades about sovereignty over the islands.
The two countries have been trading barbs for weeks, each accusing the other of intimidation and intentionally ramming rival vessels, which both deny. Vietnam has held news conferences showing footage of what it says are Chinese vessels working in pairs to corner Vietnamese boats and crash into them.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, on Thursday approved a 16 trillion dong (439 million pounds) budget to build 32 new vessels and support fishermen affected by the conflict.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, but parts of the potentially energy-rich waters are also subject to claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Le Hai Binh, told reporters on Thursday that Vietnam was “carefully considering” legal action against China but any such move would have to be timed to its advantage.
Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen in Hanoi and Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Editing by Martin Petty and Ron Popeski