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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

China Coast Guard Rams and
Sinks Vietnamese Fishing Boat
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 5, 2020

You are undoubtedly aware of news reports that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel sank a
Vietnamese fishing boat and took eight Vietnamese fishermen into custody on 2 April.
Some commentators on online social media in Vietnam have suggested that the boat
sinking and the sudden stalling of border trade are Beijing’s response to strict
measures imposed by Vietnam to restrict the coronavirus that have affected China’s
We request your assessment.
ANSWER: The actions by the captain of China Coast Guard ship no. 4301 to ram a
Vietnamese fishing boat near Phu Lam (Woody) Island are standard operating
procedures for China’s maritime law enforcement agencies. This incident illustrates
China’s ‘business-as-usual’ approach to sovereignty assertion in the South China Sea.
Unless a pattern of boat sinking emerges, it is best not to read too much into this
incident and conclude it was centrally planned and directed. China is circumspect in
tailoring its actions in response to specific developments. In this case, China’s actions
in ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat was in response to what China
perceives as illegal fishing in its waters.
Vietnam was not alone in banning flights from China and imposing restrictions on
Chinese travellers including tourists. China has not taken action against Thailand or
Malaysia. Vietnam’s actions appear a reasonable response the medical emergency
posed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is important to note that the economies of China and Vietnam are interdependent.
Both sides are negatively affected by the coronavirus and both have an interest in
seeing border relations return to normal when public health conditions permit.
Vietnam benefits from Chinese tourists and China is dependent on the supply chain of
goods from Vietnam.
Recent reports suggest there has been an upsurge in Chinese nationalism because
China was the first to contain COVID-19. President Xi Jin-ping is unlikely to play to the
gallery of his public supporters by conducting provocative assertions of national
sovereignty. Rather, the Chinese media will dutifully report incidents, such as the
sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat, as evidence that China remains steadfast in
defence of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China is unlikely to respond to Vietnam’s demands that this incident be investigated,

the responsible officials punished, and compensation paid to the owners of the fishing
boat that was sunk. China will reply that the China Coast Guard was operating within
the law to protect Chinese sovereignty. Chinese authorities will consider this a minor
incident and put the blame on the Vietnamese fishermen.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “ China Coast Guard Rams and Sinks Vietnamese
Fishing Boat,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 5, 2020. All background
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.