The Vietnamese were threatened with guns and batons on Oct. 14 after they were chased by Chinese surveillance ship No.46106, said Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, 41, owner and captain of the 15-meter-long wooden fishing boat. The equipment on the five-crew fishing vessel was destroyed, he said by phone.

While Vietnam and China agreed last week to avoid armed conflicts between their militaries, territorial tensions between the two communist countries remain with fishing and surveillance ships acting as proxies in the dispute. In July, a Chinese company removed an oil rig it had placed in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast after skirmishes between boats of the two countries and deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

“The Vietnamese fishermen are going out into the Paracel waters with the backing and support of the Vietnamese government to assert their sovereignty,” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said by phone. “That is going to put them in direct conflict with the Chinese. China is not backing down.”

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t reply to a fax seeking comment.

Camouflaged Uniforms

“Six people in camouflaged uniforms approached my vessel in a canoe with guns and cudgels,” Khanh said. The Chinese crew threw overboard two metric tons of sea spinach, harvested over three weeks, he said. None of his crew were hurt, said Khanh, who estimated his losses at about $4,000.

Vietnamese fishing boats will continue to ply waters near the Paracel islands because backing off could play into China’s claims to the territory should the dispute end up in international court, Thayer said. “Both China and Vietnam are using fishing boats to advance sovereignty claims,” he said.

The latest incident follows Vietnam’s Oct. 9 criticism of China’s completion of an upgraded airstrip on the islands, giving it another foothold in the South China Sea. The frictions come as the U.S. and Vietnam develop closer military and diplomatic ties. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh that Vietnam will be able to buy nonlethal weapons from the U.S.

Vietnam and China’s top leaders have sought to patch up relations. The countries’ defense ministers have agreed to set up hot-lines to manage sea tensions, as did their presidents last year.

Still, the two sides are facing off at sea, Thayer said.

“It will cause Vietnam to protest and will cause a hardening of positions,” he said of the latest clash. “It will revive antagonism from both sides.”

By John Boudreau & Mai Ngoc Chau - Bloomberg - October23, 2014