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Fighting over Fish in the South China Sea

07 Nov 2016
By Dr Adam Bartley
China Coast Guard. Photo Credit: Indian Navy (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons

China’s fish problem is an underappreciated source of tension in the East and South China Seas. With little fish near its own coast, China has forced its fishing industry to run the risk of fishing within non-sovereign waters. Clashes, unsurprisingly, have risen in the last year.

In terms of significance, the issue tends to take a back seat to the juicier, more headline-grabbing images of America’s island-challenging FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations). Little notice has been given to the incremental changes to national policies regarding fish poaching in the East and Southeast Asian region, nor to China’s purposeful lack of control over its fishing industry. The significance of the changes holds wider implications for Chinese-regional relations, particularly regarding Chinese claims in the South China Sea and greater strategic confrontation.

On 10 October, a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sunk a South Korean coast guard patrol boat, after it was caught fishing in South Korean waters. Before that, in September, three Chinese fishermen were accidentally killed trying to escape from South Korean authorities for fishing illegally in their waters.

In August, another diplomatic row between Japan and China seemed about to blow up over Chinese fishing vessels in the Senkaku/Diaoyu island area. Approximately 230 Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied (or escorted) by six Chinese coast guard vessels, according to the Japanese government, entered the 12 nautical mile area of the disputed islands. Strong protests were made by the Japanese government.

One reason for the spike in clashes, said a spokesman from the Chinese agricultural ministry, is simply that there is “no fish” in China’s coastal waters. This fish deficit has forced the Chinese government to impose more stringent and unpopular restrictions on the industry. New regulations in China, according to Agriculture Minister Han Changful, require China’s fleets to shrink down to 3 per cent in some provinces. In Hainan, China’s gateway island to the South China Sea, fishermen are now regulated by a zero-growth mandate in the industry.

This does nothing about the hundreds of thousands of fishing trawlers that already operate in the South and East China Seas. According to one study, fighting over fish in the South China Sea will underscore the Asian diplomatic problems of tomorrow. Currently, 55 per cent of the world’s marine-fishing vessels are employed in the South China Sea, with the overwhelming majority belonging to the Chinese who heavily subsidise their industry.

The increase in China’s fishing fleets in this area has grown simultaneously with a decrease in overall fish stocks. A report from the University of Columbia Fisheries Economic Research Unit has calculated that the total volume of fish in parts of the South China Sea has declined by between 70 and 95 per cent in the past 60 years.

As a result, China has pushed its fleets further into riskier waters. In March, the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 was sunk off the coast of Puerto Madryn, Argentina, after attempting to collide with Argentinian coast guard vessels. According to Argentinian authorities, the vessel had been fishing illegally in Argentinian waters. In May, up to 100 hundred Chinese fishermen from three fishing trawlers were detained in South Africa after being caught illegally fishing within South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

The extent to which Chinese fishing vessels have undertaken to aggressively scour the seas for more fish stocks has propelled new and assertive methods of maritime protection by China’s neighbours. Indonesia, for instance, has increased its vigilance and protection of its maritime fishing industry in a new public display of retribution against poachers.

The popular Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti has begun televising the destruction of fishing vessels caught poaching in Indonesian waters. This was displayed in the August Independence Day celebrations with the scuttling of as many as 71 vessels from various countries, including China.

Looking to emulate Indonesia’s emboldened stance on poaching, Malaysian Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Minister Dato’ Sri Ahmad Shabery bin Cheek has indicated that Malaysia would look to follow a similar policy. “We notice that Indonesia’s radical measures against poaching had contributed to deflation and lowered fish prices due to bountiful catches,” said Cheek. The caveat being, that where Indonesia destroys the vessels, Malaysia will look to sink them in order to create artificial reefs.

Malaysia’s prime minister is currently wrapping up a new prospective trip to Beijing in which it has been reported that a new deal to buy a fleet of missile-carrying Chinese patrol boats has been floated.

Meanwhile in South Korea, authorities have announced that maritime agencies will be required to adopt increased levels of force to deal with China’s illegal fishing, including the use of firearms. Authorities, according to South Korea’s deputy coastguard chief, Lee Choon-jae, “will actively respond to Chinese fishing boats that obstruct justice by using all possible means if needed such as directly hitting and gaining control of those Chinese fishing boats as well as firing common weapons.”

The increasing importance of fish stocks to the Chinese fishing industry has also blurred the lines between previously delineated maritime boundaries (that is, those not disputed by any other country). Chinese vessels fishing around the Indonesian Natuna islands have claimed traditional fishing rights, as per guidance from Chinese maritime officials, despite clear sovereign boundaries.

“Indonesian sovereignty over Natuna,” said former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa “is very clear and recognised by China…”. But by speaking of Indonesian maritime space as “traditional fishing grounds” the Chinese, according to Natalegawa, seem to have developed a “qualitative” change in the interpretation of Indonesian boundaries.

If, according to Alan Dupont, professor of international security at the University of New South Wales, the Chinese strategy is to “fish, protect, occupy and control” the surrounding waters, the Indonesians need to be worried about being drawn into the greater South China Sea disputes.

Subject to this worrying trend is the new discussion among Indonesian and Australia officials regarding joint patrols in the South China Seas. The patrols, which are “more or less agreed” upon according to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, are likely to draw the ire of Beijing. The selling point for Australia is likely to be both country’s neutrality in the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. But if escalations continue to occur in and around the Natuna islands, China’s South China Sea fight for legitimacy and authority may indeed expand and new players will be drawn in.

Adam Bartley is a PhD candidate at RMIT University Melbourne and associate member of the Global Research Centre. Twitter: @AaBartley

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.