China’s fishing fleet has been at the forefront of disputes in the South China Sea, and the expansion of China’s fleet into the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean may soon create new security headaches for the region.
In 2013, the decline of fish stocks in Chinese waters, together with China’s growing demand for protein, led Xi Jinping to urge his nation’s fishermen: “Build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish.”
With some 2,500 distant waters fishing vessels, China’s heavily subsidised fishing industry is the world’s largest, and it is pushing into ever more distant waters. The World Bank estimates that China will account for some 37 per cent of the global catch by 2030, many times that of any other country.
China is hardly the first country to exploit far-away fisheries or engage in illegal fishing, but never has it occurred on such a scale. The appearance of the Chinese fleet throughout the world is now a significant factor in the sustainability of fish stocks from Argentina to West Africa and from Somalia to Kiribati.
But despite serious and well-founded environmental concerns, this is not just about fish. The impact of Chinese fishing has important strategic consequences for the region in several ways. There is a good chance that fishing will become a key locus of disputes and incidents involving China. The collapse in fish stocks due to overfishing could have even greater implications for the region.
It seems likely that bigger fishing fleets chasing declining stocks will likely make fishing an ever more contested activity. Competition over access to fisheries will put states under greater pressure to assert claims and to police their national exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
More and more disputes are likely between Chinese and local fishers, and with local enforcement authorities.
Fishing disputes could easily create a new set of regional flashpoints. Chinese fishers often show unusual assertiveness and there have been several instances of them using force against local authorities. In 2016, an Argentine coast guard vessel was forced to fire on a Chinese fishing boat that refused to stop in Argentina’s EEZ. Ultimately the fishing boat sank after it tried to ram the Argentine ship, eliciting strong protests from Beijing.
Greater involvement by the Chinese navy and other maritime agencies can also be expected in support of Chinese fishers. In another instance in 2016, Chinese Coast Guard vessels intervened in or near Indonesian territorial waters to forcibly free a Chinese fishing vessel that had been detained by Indonesian authorities for fishing in the Indonesian EEZ. A recent report by former Australian Navy rear admiral James Goldrick maps these sorts of grey zone operations in the maritime domain.
A variety of security threats
Other factors can also substantially complicate or heighten disputes with Chinese fishers. One is the growing use of armed private security contractors, already being seen in the Indian Ocean. Another is the Chinese Navy’s use of “Sea Phantom”, intelligence vessels disguised as fishing boats. These may be operating in or near the waters of other countries, in addition to the overt intelligence ships reported in 2017. What happens when local enforcement authorities intervene against these boats?
Of even greater concern is the consequence of a reduction in fish stocks. This problem will only worsen, due to growing demand, falling fish stocks and poor enforcement arrangements.
As a report by the US National Intelligence Council argued, threats to the sustainability of fisheries in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea could pose a “chronic and widespread challenge” to US interests. Other countries have even more direct interests.
The loss of regional fishing grounds could have a severe impact on littoral communities, creating a variety of security threats. The destruction of Somali fishing grounds by illegal fishers was a key factor in impoverished local fishermen turning to piracy. This sparked an international naval build-up in the western Indian Ocean over the last decade which has had far-reaching consequences for the region.
Many countries in our region rely heavily on fish for food and as a source of income. In Indonesia, for example, fish accounts for more than 50 per cent of total protein intake and the fishing industry employs some 12 million people. The loss of fisheries for such countries could contribute to violent extremism, political instability and potentially even large-scale population movements.
What does this mean for the region? The big take-away is the need to address fishing sustainability as a security as well as an environmental issue. It means the region will need to put even more effort into building effective multilateral fisheries management systems in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Dr David Brewster is with the National Security College at the Australian National University, where he specialises in South Asian and Indian Ocean strategic affairs. He is also a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute. His previous career was as a corporate lawyer working on complex cross-border transactions and he practiced for almost two decades in the United States, England, France and Australia.