Why China Sunk a Vietnamese Fishing Boat During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 3, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Eight Vietnamese fishermen were on board. Luckily, none of them perished. After the Chinese briefly held them, they were repatriated to their home country. 

The sinking prompted a sharp rebuke from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which lodged a formal diplomatic note of protest with the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. “As have been stated on various occasions, Vietnam has ample historical evidence and legal basis to affirm its sovereignty over the Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and Trường Sa (Spratly) Islands in accordance with the international law,” the MFA said in a statement released online. “The above-mentioned Chinese vessel’s act violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, causes property losses and endangers the lives, safety and legitimate interests of the Vietnamese fishermen.”

In the grand scheme of things, the Chinese government’s sinking of a single Vietnamese fishing vessel isn’t a world-shaking event. But it is indicative of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) broader designs for the South China Sea. 

Beijing asserts it has sovereign rights throughout the Paracel archipelago, as well as the nearby Spratly Islands—rejecting an international arbitration decision that cut against its interests. And even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic—that is, at a time when Beijing is very concerned about its international image given its mishandling of COVID-19—the Chinese government couldn’t help itself. The CCP had to remind the Vietnamese that it would not abide by any restraints on its claimed dominion on the high seas.

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