April 9 (UPI) -- The Pentagon said Thursday it was "greatly concerned" over reports a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and then sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea late last week.
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Defense said, "China's behavior stands in contrast to the United States' vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms."
Vietnam has blamed China for the sinking of the fishing boat carrying eight crew near the Paracel Islands late last Thursday. Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told reporters a day after the incident that the fishing boat was performing normal fishing activities in Vietnam's sovereign waters when it was "hindered, rammed and sunk by a Chinese coast guard vessel."
The incident has ratcheted up tensions between Vietnam and China, both of which lay claim to the Paracel Islands.
Vietnam has blamed the Chinese vessel for violating its sovereignty over the islet archipelago, causing property loss and endangering the lives, safety and the legitimate interests of the Vietnamese fishermen.
The foreign ministry official said a representative has lodged a diplomatic protest with the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, requesting it investigate the sinking and punish those responsible.
Late Friday, China's coast guard rejected the Vietnamese statement on the events and blamed the Vietnamese vessel for the incident, saying in a statement that the fishing boat was illegally in China's waters and refused to leave despite repeated warnings, South China Morning Post reported.
"It rammed into our coast guard ship 4301 and sunk, all eight crew have been rescued. We have urged Vietnam to avoid similar incidents from happening in light of the increasingly frequent illegal fishing activities in Xisha waters," Zhang said, referring to the Paracel Islands by its Chinese name.
The South China Sea Strategic Probing initiative at China's Peking Unversity Institute of Ocean Research said in a report Wednesday that at least 569 Vietnamese fishing vessels were found in disputed waters that China lays claim to in March, up from 311 vessels in February.
Following the incident, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying it was "seriously concerned" over the boat's sinking and that it was "the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea."
State Department Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic Beijing has announced new so-called research stations on military bases it built on manmade islands in the South China Sea and continues to deploy "maritime militia in the area."
Ortagus also said the United States rejects China's claim to essentially the entire South China Sea through its Nine-Dashed Line that was deemed illegal in July 2016 by an arbitral tribunal under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
On Wednesday, the Philippines voiced support for Vietnam in the incident, recalling that China had sunk one of its ships in the South China Sea with nearly two dozen fishermen on board and how it was Vietnam who rescued them.
"Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it; and how much was created by Vietnam's humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen. We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam," the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. "It is with that in mind that we issue this statement of solidarity."
The Department of Foreign Affairs called for the refrain of such activities that could weaken trust between nations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust," it said. "In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fust that's lit by such incidents."
The Pentagon echoed this sentiment Thursday, stating the pandemic, which has sickened more than 1.6 million people and caused nearly 100,000 deaths, underscores the importance of international rules as they allow for countries to address this international crisis.
"We call on all parties to refrain from actions that would destabilize the region, distract from the global response to the pandemic or risk needlessly contributing to loss of life and property," the Department of Defense said.