photo by Andrew Crump
When American voters head to the polls in November, they might contemplate who they want negotiating with China over fish.
Granted, Chinese aggression in poaching other nations’ fisheries is unlikely to be a central question of presidential debates or a focus for political advertisements. But it is a real, significant problem all the same. And it is one that the international community, America included, cannot ignore indefinitely.
When most of us consider Chinese assertiveness in the Western Pacific Ocean, we usually think about their efforts to secure oil or to test the limits of disputed boundaries. But in fact, Chinese behavior may suggest Beijing is more interested, at present, in control of fishing.
Hainan province announced new regulations for fishing in the South China Sea in late 2013, requiring foreign vessels to obtain advance approval to fish or conduct surveys in Chinese-controlled waters. These waters included areas where China’s sovereignty is questioned, such as those adjacent to the Paracel Islands, under dispute with Vietnam. The rules also extended to areas generally understood to constitute international waters, where fishing vessels should have the right to navigate freely. This has not stopped the Chinese from boarding or chasing away Vietnamese and Filipino fishing vessels in the region it says it has the right to police.
While the Chinese overreach in their efforts to restrict other nations’ fishing vessels, China’s own fishing enterprises have helped themselves to other people’s fish pretty much wherever and whenever they want. A study by Greenpeace, released last year, found that Chinese fishing boats regularly fished illegally off the coast of West Africa, either operating without licenses or fishing prohibited areas. In just over half the instances the group identified, the vessel involved belonged to the China National Fisheries Corporation, a state-owned firm. Not only were Chinese vessels operating without permission, but they took steps to actively hide their activities, including the transmission of incorrect location data to mask the vessels’ routes.
These deceptive practices are not restricted to the African coast. Damanzaihao, said to be the world’s largest fishing vessel, has been called out by Greenpeace for its activities in the South Pacific. It has flown various flags, including those of Peru, Russia and Mongolia, and has changed its name at least once, all without reporting any catch at all to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization. That agency declared the vessel an “illegal unreported unregulated” ship early last year.
As an article at World Politics Review explains, China faces a fish supply crisis due to the collapse of its own overexploited fisheries. As its resources shrink, however, the country’s fish consumption continues to balloon. To meet this demand, China has built the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, much of which is heavily state-subsidized.
In other words, Chinese fishermen flouting international rules are not simply rouge actors, breaking the law to try to turn a profit. Many of them are, for practical purposes, government employees. These incursions are not isolated incidents; they are a reflection of state policy.
Vietnam and the Philippines are not the only countries to have pushed back against Chinese fishing aggression, in the South China Sea and elsewhere. South Korea has apprehended thousands of Chinese fishing vessels operating illegally and plans to increase its maximum penalty for the crime. Japan and Russia have also caught illegal Chinese trawlers in their waters. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has adopted a more extreme policy of sinking all illegal fishing boats found in the country’s waters.
Most recently, Argentina has joined the ranks of countries pushing back against China. Under the country’s former president, Cristina Fernandez, the country largely accommodated Chinese trespassing, probably because Fernandez needed Chinese support to bolster her regime. Newly elected President Mauricio Macri seems disinclined to stand for Chinese bullying, however. Argentina’s coast guard recently sank a Chinese vessel fishing illegally off the coast of Puerto Madryn. The trawler reportedly ignored radio calls ordering it to allow the coast guard to board, as well as warning fire.
While Macri should be applauded for standing up to Beijing, it is absurd to imagine that Argentina could successfully stand alone against China, in a military sense or any other. The same goes for countries like Indonesia or the Philippines. If the international community is to bring Chinese fishing aggression to heel, it will require broad-based action. Such action will require strong leadership – which may well bring us back to American voters’ choice in November.
China’s illegal pursuit of fish is not substantially different from Chinese hacking of commercial secrets. Many Chinese companies steal, and many of those that do are essentially indistinguishable from the Chinese government itself, which also steals. If we are not willing to face the reality that such actions are not outliers, but policy, we simply encourage further aggressive Chinese behavior.