OPINION | Something fishy about China’s anger over the Quad’s open ocean plans

A vessel suspected of fisheries violations somewhere in the Northern Pacific Ocean, May 22, 2014 (Photo: US Coast Guard)

Some international issues should be non-sensitive and uncontroversial. One of these is the regulation of fishing fleets to prevent overfishing and ensure the sustainable use of ocean resources. But even combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become politicised now, which serves as a sad example of how the intensified US-China rivalry is obstructing cooperation to solve transnational problems.

Meeting in Japan in May 2022, the Quad countries (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) announced an “Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness”, including a plan for cooperation to reduce IUU fishing. The Quad said it would provide countries in the region with commercially available ship-tracking data and expand a system for sharing information about the activities of fishing vessels. The plan would be especially helpful for relatively poor coastal states with large maritime exclusive economic zones to patrol.

The Quad did not mention China by name. Beijing, nevertheless, reacted to the announcement with hostility.

“China’s approach here may be more like the February 2023 spy balloon incident over the United States: we made a small mistake, but the problem is solved now, so don’t ‘overreact’.”

China has such a negative view of the Quad’s intentions as to interpret any Quad actions in the worst possible light. Beijing characterises the Quad as a major step towards an “Asian NATO”, and as a vehicle the United States uses “to lure” other countries “into its fold to contain China” with the goal of maintaining America’s “global hegemony”.

Officials and media from the People’s Republic ascribe two specific motives to the Quad plans to share shipping data. The first is an alleged US intention to draw increased international attention to Chinese IUU fishing to shame China and ruin China’s relations with other countries in the region. The second is an alleged US goal to expand US surveillance of all China’s shipping to eventually include coast guard and military vessels.

To further strengthen the case that China is a victim of US scheming, commentators in China’s state media argue that their country does a good job policing its own fishing fleets. Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, argues that the country’s government “has never shied away from the fact that there are Chinese fishing boats engaging in IUU fishing and has taken many effective measures to regulate China’s distant-water fishing activities by raising fines and confiscating fishing vessels.” As a result, Hu says, the number of the country’s IUU fishing activities “have significantly declined.”

Considering China’s typically stubborn refusal to concede any wrongdoing whatsoever – abuse of Uighurs in Xinjiang, for example – it is refreshing to see the admission that the conduct of Chinese fishermen is less than perfect. Perhaps in the case of illegal Chinese fishing, deniability has become too implausible for Beijing to maintain. In this sense, China’s approach here may be less like Xinjiang and more like the February 2023 spy balloon incident over the United States: we made a small mistake, but the problem is solved now, so don’t “overreact”.

“While China claims to be cracking down on violators, the government also subsidises these distant fishing operations.”

Deniability is lost because of a preponderance of evidence. Non-government organisations such as the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation and the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime have found that China is the world’s most egregious IUU fishing offender. A study published in Science Advances in 2020 based on data from the US non-profit organisation Global Fishing Watch (GFW) found that Chinese vessels fishing illegally in North Korean waters in 2017 and 2018 caught an amount of Japanese flying squid that equalled the legal catch of Japan and South Korea combined.

In a combined 2021 investigation by Associated Press and Univision, journalists found that of the 30 Chinese-owned and -operated fishing vessels they observed off the coast of South America, 16 were hiding their electronic identities by keeping their transponders turned off or broadcasting false data. They also found evidence of forced labour, in which crewmen (in this case Indonesian nationals) are kept in working captivity aboard their vessels, in some cases for years.

While China claims to be cracking down on violators, the government also subsidises these distant fishing operations, providing, for example, discounted fuel.

The Quad’s plan to increase surveillance of IUU fishing is not solely based on a desire to embarrass or contain China, although these factors are likely also at play. The Quad’s initiative is justified because Beijing’s assurances that its own efforts make the Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness unnecessary are not persuasive. Nor does the new effort to reduce China’s incentive to clean up its own act – quite the opposite. And the Quad effort might be better understood if seen as helping China catch law-breaking Chinese fishing boats.

In the recent past, the PRC was often a beneficiary rather than a target of US-led capacity building efforts in the Asia-Pacific. In today’s geopolitical context, however, the issue is another factor contributing to bilateral friction – in Washington’s view, further evidence that China under Xi Jinping is an aggressive disruptor of the liberal world order, while Beijing sees yet another attempt to “smear” the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation.

This story originally appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Denny Roy

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu specialising in Asia-Pacific strategic and security issues. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and is the author of four books and many journal and op-ed articles.