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Sunken boats. Stolen gear. Fishermen are prey as China conquers a strategic sea

By Shashank Bengali and Vo Kieu Bao Uyen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LY SON, Vietnam — On a warm, cloudless morning in June, a giant vessel blasted through the still waters of the South China Sea toward a wooden fishing boat painted in cerulean blue and flying the red flag of Vietnam.

The veteran fishing captain cranked up the engine to flee, but the approaching ship dropped two motorized dinghies into the sea with uniformed officers aboard. The rubber crafts raced along either side of the fishing boat, squeezing it like a pincer.

As the captain slowed to avoid a collision, the large ship was soon upon them. The large letters across its steel hull read: China.

Crammed into their cabin for safety, the 17 men were knocked to the deck by a jolt that nearly tipped the boat. Then another. And another. "Like war," recalled crew member Nguyen Day.

The Chinese vessel smashed the boat repeatedly, damaging the cabin. Four fishermen tumbled overboard. As the officers pulled them from the water, Day, 41, and the other Vietnamese men piled into lifeboats and watched their craft — laden with several hundred pounds of tuna, mackerel, grouper and flying fish — begin to float away.

The June 10 attack was part of Beijing's hard-nosed offensive in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels are using increasingly aggressive tactics to deter rival nations and stake control over the strategic waterway.

 

Unfazed by rising global criticism, China's navy, coast guard and paramilitary fleet has rammed fishing boats, harassed oil exploration vessels, held combat drills and shadowed U.S. naval patrols. The escalating show of force has overwhelmed smaller Southeast Asian states that also claim parts of the sea, one of the world's busiest fishing and trade corridors and a repository of untapped oil and natural gas.

Beijing's maritime expansionism illustrates not only the Chinese Communist Party's growing military might, but also its willingness to defy neighbors and international laws to fulfill President Xi Jinping's sweeping visions of power.

In its strategic quest to dominate the waterway separating the Asian mainland from the island of Borneo and the Philippine archipelago, China has built military outposts on disputed islands and reefs that, according to Xi, "are Chinese territory since ancient times ... left to us by our ancestors." The network of bases, harbors and landing strips deep in international waters has created a buffer for China's southern coastline, further encircled Taiwan and challenged the Pentagon's ability to move ships into Asia.

"It appears that China is rapidly developing the capabilities to exclude other navies from the South China Sea," Bill Hayton, an author and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, told a congressional commission in September.

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