Chinese Flare Signals Beginning of Busy, Complicated Summer

Reports that Vietnamese fishing boat caught fire are likely not the last.

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U.S. Coast Guard still protects Vietnamese fishermen from Chinese ships such as this one leaving the Xingang Port of Haikou on March 26.

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It's going to be a very busy summer in the South China Sea, following reports that the Chinese inadvertently fired a flare at a Vietnamese fishing vessel, starting a fire.

Chinese officials admit one of their naval vessels fired two "warning signal shells" at a Vietnamese fishing boat that had crossed over into China's territorial waters on March 20, according to the official news service Xinhua. The Chinese crew first tried to signal it with "whistle blowing, shouting and handflag guiding."

The Vietnamese government claims the Chinese then fired flares directly at the fishing boat, causing it to catch fire. Local newspapers have run pictures of the burned-out cabin, according to VOA News.

The incident comes amid ongoing disputes between an increasingly expeditionary China and its neighbors on the China Sea, who differ on territorial claims to fishing grounds and other valuable resources. As the fishing season begins, experts agree this will likely not be the last encounter between two hostile governments.

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"We're going to see more friction, and we're certainly going to see more accidents involving fishermen," says Bonnie Glaser, a Pacific region expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

China announced Wednesday a new amphibious task force has reached its southern tip near Malaysia to "defend the South China sea," according to the South China Morning Post. The four-ship flotilla will operate around the James Shoal, less than 80 kilometers from Malaysia and 200 kilometers from Brunei.

Chinese authorities have indicated this particular Vietnamese fishing vessel has been a repeated nuisance in that area. Fishing boats often serve alternative purposes, says Glaser.

"Sometimes these countries are using fishing boats for more than just fishing," she says. "This is a way for asserting jurisdiction and sovereignty claims."

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She says this most recent incident was almost certainly an accident, and likely won't escalate due to the open lines of communication between the two communist governments.

The U.S. Navy, like most modern marine forces, has a series of procedures for addressing nearby vessels that could be considered a threat, called "queries and warnings," an officer with experience in the western Pacific tells U.S. News.

Sailors assess three key things of an oncoming boat: Does it have the capability to inflict harm, does it have the opportunity to inflict harm and does it have hostile intent?

Immediate responses consist of flashing a light, waving or blowing a horn, all while trying to signal the other vessel on the radio. If it gets too close, Navy policy allows for firing a flare in its general direction, and ultimately firing warning shots as a last resort.

The types of flares the U.S. Navy uses are not accurate enough to strike another vessel purposefully. The flare would also likely have to land on something flammable to start a fire.

A Reuters photograph reportedly depicting the boat in question shows it likely had a canvas covering over the cabin area. The deck is strewn with debris and drums for liquids.

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