HANOI, Vietnam -- A Vietnamese fishing boat capsized after being rammed by a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea's contested Paracel Islands, a Vietnamese official said Friday. China said its boat came upon the fishing vessel after it started sinking and sought help for the crew.
The boat was fishing near Discovery Reef when the incident occurred Wednesday, said the Vietnamese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. The Paracel archipelago is claimed by both Vietnam and China, which took control of the islands in 1974.
An online report by the newspaper Tuoi Tre said the five crewmen aboard the Vietnamese boat clung to the bow of their upturned vessel for two hours until they were rescued by another Vietnamese fishing boat.
The official Chinese Communist Party newspaper reported that a Chinese government vessel received a distress call from a Vietnamese fishing boat and sailed to the area, where it found the boat partly sunk. The online report, quoting Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, said the Chinese ship immediately contacted China's maritime search and rescue center to dispatch a rescue vessel and the five Vietnamese fishermen were rescued.
Lu said nothing about a vessel, Chinese or otherwise, ramming the Vietnamese ship other than to cite the original Vietnamese report. He also didn't specifically say that the Chinese ship rescued the fishermen.
China's territorial claims extend far into the South China Sea, and it maintains a robust maritime presence that includes driving away non-Chinese fishing boats. Its coast guard performs most such actions, assisted by ships of the maritime militia — ostensibly civilian fishing boats that can swiftly be mobilized. There have been several previously reported incidents of Vietnamese fishing boats being attacked by Chinese vessels.
China has also built up reefs and islands, transforming them into military installations to further its claim to the disputed waterway and its resources, a major point of regional tension. A standoff between the countries in 2014 after China parked an oil rig near the Paracel Islands sparked deadly riots in Vietnam.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this story.