“A certain neighbouring country” returns to the South China Sea dispute

14 Vietnamese fishermen detained by China from May 16 to 21 have their first meal following their release

It was as though they were playing tag-team† in a WWF wrestling show. Just as the China-Philippines tensions started to diminish, who should pop up to disturb China’s peaceful claims? Why, “a certain neighbouring country”, of course.

When Philippines President Benigno Aquino III welcomed, and indeed matched, the PRC’s yearly South China Sea fishing ban, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministr labelled it “invalid”.

On May 24 the Vietnamese held another press conference at which spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said that China had detained two Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands on May 16 (for some reason this VietnamNet report says the incident occurred in the Spratlys), and held the 14 crew until May 21. As soon as China officially advised Vietnam about the incident on May 21, according to spokesman Luong, the Vietnamese side lodged a strong diplomatic protest against the “severe violation of the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions of Viet Nam”.

There are plenty of details in this English-language Vietnamese media report

Vo Minh Quan, 42, the captain of QNg 50003TS boat, said the fishermen went to sea on May 2. Fourteen days later, at 9 am on May 16, a Chinese ship coded 306 suddenly appeared and seized the boat and the crew.

The foreign ship later captured the QNg 55003TS boat piloted by captain Tran The Anh and then escorted the two boats with all their crewmembers to Phu Lam [永兴, Woody] island for detention.

The Chinese authorities confiscated all fishing tools, maritime equipment, 2,000 liters of oil, five diving cylinders, and a large amount of sea products.

Total value of the seized items of both fishing boats is estimated at VND900 million (US$43,200). Quan said.

At 12 am on May 21, the Chinese captors released all fishermen and the QNg 50003TS but kept the other boat in detention.

….but i have failed to find anything at all in the Chinese media about the incident.

Just two days later, precisely the opposite was the case. The May 19 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao ran an exclusive story headlined ‘Three foreign gunboats pursue and harass Chinese fishing boats, rescued by Yuzheng 310‘, which doesn’t appear to have been reported in the international media. It’s dramatic enough (and strange enough) to translate in full:

From Huanqiu Shibao‘s specially-dispatched journalist in the South China Sea: On May 18, China’s Yuzheng 310 vessel successfully deterred three gunboats from a certain country from pursuing and harassing 追袭 five Chinese fishing boats, protecting more than 100 Chinese fisherfolk from financial loss and personal harm.

Huanqiu Shibao’s reporter has learned that there was no rest for the crew of Yuzheng 310 after completing their tasks at Huangyan Island, for they were immediately out on patrol once again in the South Sea. On May 18 at 9.40am, as the boat was sailing from Yongshu Reef [Fiery Cross Reef] towards Chigua Reef, it suddenly received orders from the mainland command centre to rush to waters 11°22’N and 110°45’E to prevent Chinese fishing boats from being detained by a certain country.

Earlier, the five Chinese boats, from Guangxi, had encountered a pursuit-attack 追击袭扰* and harassment from a certain country’s three gunboats. One, Guabeiyu 88088, sent out an urgent distress call. At that time Yuzheng 310, 140 nautical miles away, was the closest Chinese government vessel.

Upon receiving its orders, Yuzheng 310 changed direction and hastened at the rapid speed of 21 knots to the waters where the harassed fishing boats were located. Meanwhile, the command centre advised Guabeiyu 88088 and the other boats to head in Yuzheng 310‘s direction.

An official with the South Sea Region of the Fisheries Bureau (南海区渔政局) said the certain country’s gunboats had the intention of seizing the Chinese fishing boats. [The official said] that from the information sent out by the fishing boats, the chase went around in circles for almost 20 hours, and this area was within the traditional boundaries of our country’s territory by around 50 nautical miles. [Therefore] the Chinese boats were engaging entirely in normal production and navigation in Chinese waters, and the certain country’s brazen harassment was absolutely illegal and unreasonable.

Obviously, the certain country discovered that China’s most advanced fisheries law enforcement vessel was steaming over to rescue the Chinese fishing boats, and at 1pm the Guibeiyu 88088 reported that that country’s gunboats had turned around and left. The command team on board Yuzheng 310 cautiously ordered [them] to maintain direction for one hour and observe the other side’s movements. At 2pm the rescue alert was removed. Guibeiyu 88088sent a message to Yuzheng 310 from its onboard Beidou navigational communications system: “Grateful thanks to the guardians from the fisheries administration!”

The whole article, in particular the ending, is so effusive in its praise of the Fisheries Bureau, a department under the Ministry of Agriculture, that one has to wonder exactly how it came to be published in its current form. A couple of weeks ago M. Taylor Fravel noted how this article from Xinhua appeared to be big-noting the role of the Ministry of Agriculture and trying to raise the profile of the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s (FLEC) ships.

Indeed, throughout the Chinese media’s coverage of the Scarborough Shoal crisis, the ship Yuzheng 310 has featured very prominently, always accompanied by the tagline “China’s most advanced fisheries enforcement vessel”. A picture of it sat at the very top of Sina and NetEase’s news portals for most of last month (it’s still there on news.sina.com.cn). When Yuzheng 310 set out on its mission to Scarborough Shoal in early May, the FLEC even invited the the patriotic media to ride on board. So it would seem pretty clear that the Ministry of Agriculture is making a concerted effort to raise its domestic profile as a player in the South China Sea dispute.

This is quite understandable in light of the recent International Crisis Group report’s findings about the competition between different law enforcement agencies in the South China Sea. That competition may even be the reason for the otherwise-perplexing emphasis on the Yuzheng 310’s alleged withdrawal from Scarborough Shoal in the Chinese media in late April, which generated much public criticism.

Being based on a single source at the Huanqiu Shibao, the degree of truth to this latest story of FLEC’s heroism is not beyond question. It hasn’t been reported in the English-language media to my knowledge, and I haven’t seen any acknowledgement of the incident whatsoever from the Vietnamese government. On the other hand, the fact that it referred to “a certain country” probably meant that it didn’t warrant any such response.

There is no doubt, however, as to which country “a certain country” refers to. For the essential background on this linguistic masterstroke check out this clip from a late-80s/early-90s PRC propaganda film on the 1988 Sino-Vietnamese skirmish in the Spratly Islands (referred to as the “Johnson South Reef Skirmish” on Wikipedia):

The Huanqiu‘s scoop quickly spread around the Chinese media — particularly on satellite TV and online, but also in newspapers such as the Chongqing Morning News 重庆晨报, Shanxi Evening News 山西晚报 and the Legal System Evening News 法制晚报. Each of the TV reports that i saw quoted more or less word for word from the Huanqiu Shibao story, so i’m pretty sure there was no other source for the story.

The public reaction online might be summed up as jaded skepticism. This was well encapsulated by the more than 7,000 thumbs-downs, compared to only 6,000 thumbs-ups, on Youku’s posting of Hunan TV’s report on the Huanqiu report on Yuzheng 310‘s heroics — a pretty stunning statement in my view, considering the rousing tale of Chinese triumph that was being told. Wasn’t this the kind of hardline response, protecting ordinary Chinese fishermen, that the “netizens” had been calling for?

Well, maybe for some, but for most commenters the most salient feature of the story was the use of “a certain country” 某国 (the term was retained everywhere the story was republished). At Sina it was the second-most-commented story of the week May 14-21, with 139,000+ participants. Top comments:

If you don’t even say the name of the opposing country, what territory or territorial sea can you speak of? [5607]

After reading this news i did not feel proud at all. On the contrary, i felt a bit sad, being mistreated on your own patch, a magnificent country, how can this be endured? [4266]

How can it not even say which country’s warship it was? How is it always China’s fishermen being bullied…I am really disappointed in the mother country’s diplomatic ability. [3164]

Other top comments on Sina questioned where the PLAN was, and why it wasn’t protecting China’s maritime domain. Perhaps that’s what this story was all about — convincing the Chinese public that FLEC (and the other civilian law enforcement agencies that the PRC state is determined to use) is in fact a sufficiently prestigious and worthy substitute for the PLA Navy in the South China Sea. That kind of explanation implicitly emphasises central direction — unity within the Chinese state. However, it seems equally if not more likely that this is part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s own attempts at self-promotion against other agencies vying for the authority and resources to patrol the sea.


† I wondered about this possibility last year when the timing of some provocative words and actions from the Philippines and Vietnam seemed almost to be coordinated. I just haven’t had time to find the post.

* After asking a Chinese friend about the implications of 追袭 I’ve been deliberately conservative by translating it as “pursuit and harassment” rather than “pursuit and attack”, so as to avoid the 击毙=execution pitfall. But i think 追击袭扰, literally “pursue-attack-attack-harass”, renders the pursuit in question as a form of attack.

4 Comments on ““A certain neighbouring country” returns to the South China Sea dispute”

  1. […] “A certain neighbouring country” returns to the South China Sea dispute « southseaconversations… It was as though they were playing tag-team† in a WWF wrestling show. Just as the China-Philippines tensions started to diminish, who should pop up to disturb China’s peaceful claims? Why, “a certain neighbouring country”, of course — a.k.a. Vietnam. […]

  2. […] is striking that while a number of dramatic, first-person Huanqiu Shibao articles just a couple of months back conspicuously avoided naming Vietnam, referring only to “a certain […]

  3. […] is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of Tanmen “A certain neighbouring country” returns to the South China Sea dispute […]

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