China demands explanation over its trawler sunk by Argentina

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(Reuters) — China said it has lodged a protest with Argentina and demanded an immediate probe after the Argentinean coast guard sunk a Chinese trawler, state media reported on Wednesday (March 16).

The trawler was fishing illegally within its territorial waters, Argentina's coast guard said on Tuesday (March 15), marking a first test for relations between President Mauricio Macri and Beijing.

A coast guard vessel pursued the fishing vessel Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 toward international waters in a high-seas chase on Monday (March 14), firing warning shots across the Chinese boat's bow as it attempted to raise the crew by radio.

It was not clear if the vessel sank on Monday or Tuesday. The crew abandoned ship when the vessel began to go down.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said four crewmen were rescued by the coast guard while others were picked up by another Chinese vessel shadowing the pursuit.

"Four Chinese crew members onboard the trawler were rescued by the Argentinean coast guard while the other 28 were picked up by a Chinese fishing vessel nearby. There were no casualties. The State Council officials paid great attention to the incident and made important instructions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese embassy in Argentina have already lodged an emergency protest with the Argentinean side, demanding Argentina launch an immediate probe and report on the details to China, ensure safety and legal rights of Chinese fishermen and take steps to prevent similar incidents from happening again," CCTV anchor Song Yiping said, citing a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

Macri's center-right government, which took office in December, will likely be keen to avoid a diplomatic ruckus with the Asian powerhouse which has gained a strong foothold in South America, traditionally the United States' backyard.

Relations between Argentina and China tightened under former leftist leader Cristina Fernandez. Macri promised during last year's presidential race to review all new contracts with China but has shown no sign of doing so. Among those deals were an agreement to finance and build two nuclear power plants in Argentina in a deal worth up to $15 billion.

A spokesman for Argentina's foreign ministry said the judiciary was investigating the incident.

Coast guards using radar picked up the trawler fishing off the coast of Puerto Madryn, Chubut province, a zone known for squid.

Shots were fired into the hull of the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 after it ignored repeated warning fire and radio calls to allow the Argentine coast guard to board.

China has the world's largest distant water fishing fleet, with more than 2,000 vessels, the not-for-profit group Stop Illegal Fishing said last year.