China and Vietnam are engaged in a new war of words over disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea. Twenty one Vietnamese fishermen have been detained since March 3 while working off the Paracel Islands (Xisha to the Chinese and Hoang Sa to the Vietnamese) which both countries claim. China says Vietnam’s government should halt the fishing off the Paracels to stop what Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei described as illegal fishing operations by “a large number of Vietnamese fishing ships”. Vietnam insists the fishermen were in Vietnamese waters and should be freed.
Beijing has been beefing up its naval presence in the South China Sea. The Maritime Surveillance Force conducted three times as many missions there last year as in 2008. As well as fishing boats, the vessels were looking for oil and gas drilling, activity off the Spratlys that Beijing also holds to be illegal in what it considers its waters.