The incident took place inside Malaysian waters, where local fisherman have complained in the past about Vietnamese fishing boats that damage their nets.
Coast guard chief Zubil Mat Som told AFP that two Vietnamese fishing boats had entered Malaysian waters some 80 nautical miles from Tok Bali, off the northeastern state of Kelantan late Sunday (Aug 16).
"The coastguard crew had earlier fired warning shots in the air but after they rammed and threw a bottle of petrol, my men had no choice but to open fire in self defence," he said.
Zubil alleged the Vietnamese crew had thrown petrol and a tyre to try and set fire to the coast guard boat, which was damaged by the "aggressive ramming".
One Vietnamese fisherman suffered gunshot wounds and was pronounced dead after he was brought to shore.
"We are saddened by this deadly incident. But I can guarantee... my men took this action to protect their lives and to protect our national sovereignty," Zubil added.
The Vietnamese boats with the remaining 20 crew members were towed to the coast guard jetty.
Parts of the South China Sea are subject to rival claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, while Beijing claims the entire waterway.
The rival claims to the sea, which straddles vital shipping lanes and covers rich fishing grounds, makes it a potential flashpoint for conflict.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- where four claimants are members of -- are currently in talks for a code of conduct in the area.
While not a claimant, the United States has been sending freedom of navigation patrols in international waters, but China has slammed these as interference in regional affairs.
In February, Kuala Lumpur sought to secure a deal with Hanoi to end alleged intrusions into Malaysian waters by Vietnamese vessels. - AFP
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