LY SON ISLAND, Vietnam — Vietnamese fisherman Dang Van Hoanh sits on the deck of a creaky ferry, nursing a broken leg wrapped in grubby bandages and splinted with wood.
Staring out to sea, he recounts how an unidentified vessel rammed and sank his boat one night in May in South China Sea waters claimed by both Vietnam and China. One of his six crew was killed and another is still missing.
“I planned to marry after that fishing trip but we lost everything,” Hoanh, 27, told Reuters as the ferry headed to Ly Son island off central Vietnam where he and many other fishermen live. “Now, I’m broke and in debt.”
Hoanh believes he got caught in the crossfire of a dispute between Hanoi and Beijing over China’s recent deployment of a US$1 billion oil rig near the disputed Paracel islands off Vietnam.
China moved the rig back toward its coast in mid-July, but for 10 weeks scores of coastguard and fishing vessels from both sides squared off around the platform in a daily routine in which the Vietnamese boats appeared to be no match for the larger Chinese vessels.
Reuters reporters joined two Vietnamese coastguard patrols near the rig in May and July. On both occasions, faster and better equipped Chinese ships chased them off.
Hoanh has no proof because it was dark, but he believes a bigger Chinese boat rammed his small wooden craft on May 25. At the time, Ly Son authorities said they also suspected it was Chinese.
China did not comment on the incident but it had frequently accused Vietnamese boats of being aggressive around the rig and blamed them for any collisions.
Hoanh said he had wanted no part in the drama and had sought to fish elsewhere, unlike some of his fellow fishermen who took part in the cat-and-mouse jostling around the drilling platform.
“Since the rig was put there, we moved further north to avoid the Chinese. But they still rammed us and sank us,” he said, adding Vietnamese fishermen weren’t safe anywhere.
Another Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in an incident on May 26 near the rig. Its 10 crew were rescued.
About 3,000 fishermen live on Ly Son, 15 nautical miles (28 km) off Vietnam’s coast and which for centuries has been a base for fishermen to venture into the South China Sea.
China claims 90 percent of the strategic waterway. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the ocean, which is potentially rich in oil and gas but also home to vital fishing grounds for the region.
Tensions with China in disputed waters had already been costly to Vietnam’s fishermen, but worsened after the oil rig was deployed on May 2.
Fourteen of Ly Son’s 426 boats were badly damaged in collisions with Chinese vessels while the platform was off Vietnam, said Pham Thi Huong of the local Ly Son government. The damage bill was $280,000, she said.
That compared with 17 incidents across the South China Sea involving Chinese ships in 2013, Huong added.
Bui Van Minh, 33, said he’d been harassed by Chinese vessels some 20 times this year, including getting blasted with water cannon from a Chinese coastguard ship near the rig last month.
“We were angry, but we couldn’t do anything,” Minh said.
Fishermen complained they were spending more on fuel to avoid risky waters while others said they had struck deals to sell their catch to buyers at lower prices in return for loans to repair their damaged boats.
Some help might be on the way after the government in Hanoi approved a 16 trillion dong ($750 million) support package, to take effect next month. Of that, 11.5 trillion dong will be used to buy 32 coastguard and surveillance ships.
Fishermen seeking new boats can apply for low-interest loans and the state will cover insurance costs for all vessels and crew under the package. But with an estimated 800,000 fishermen and 128,000 fishing boats in Vietnam, the money might not go far.
Indeed, Vietnamese officials said they could not match the financial support Chinese authorities were giving their fishermen.
“This policy is not a magic wand … We can’t compare with investment in China’s fishermen,” said Le Ngoc Phuoc, vice chairman of the Vietnam Fisheries Association, which represents all of the country’s fishermen.
“Their strategy is to occupy wherever they go, that’s why they focus strongly on building huge boats with modern equipment.”