Fishing Disputes Could Spark a South China Sea Crisis
Rivalries in the South China Sea are getting heated over a resource fight. But it’s more about fish than fuel.
The simmering maritime disputes and land grabs in the South China Sea have long been seen as a battle over its potentially vast undersea deposits of oil and natural gas. That’s not quite true: There is a sometimes violent scramble for resources in the region, but it’s more a fight for fish than for oil.
The latest evidence came Tuesday, when Indonesia blew up 23 fishing boats from Vietnam and Malaysia that it said were poaching in Indonesian waters. It wasn’t the first time Indonesia’s flamboyant, chain-smoking fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, has literally dynamited her way to international headlines: The country demolished 27 fishing boats in February and has scuttled more than 170 in the last two years.
But the move is significant all the same, because it underscores how central fishing is to the simmering territorial disputes that are turning the South China Sea into a potential global flash point — and how far countries are willing to go to defend their turf, or at least what they claim is theirs.
The maritime disputes between China and its neighbors over who controls what part of the South China Sea are increasingly coming to a head — not with bristling gunboats but with trawlers.
Large and growing fishing fleets in almost all the countries ringing the South China Sea are at the front lines over the fight to control tiny rocks with names like Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross, and Scarborough Shoal. Because there are festering and unresolved territorial disputes involving all countries in the region, seemingly innocent efforts by all parties to fish in traditional waters are sparking international showdowns, with potentially dangerous implications even for countries far away, including the United States.
Although not the root cause of disputes over sovereignty in the region, the clashes over fishing rights — which occur almost on a daily basis and often go unreported — pose the greatest potential risk of triggering a full-fledged crisis or even an armed conflict in the South China Sea. “They are the most likely factor to cause an escalation that nobody intended,” Gregory Poling, an Asia maritime expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy.
Military commanders in Washington are worried about escalation, especially given recent U.S. efforts to enforce the area’s freedom of navigation by sailing Navy ships through disputed waters. Against the backdrop of rising friction over fishing, as well as other disputes, Washington has repeatedly appealed to China to back off its coercive moves in the region and warned Beijing against “militarization” of the South China Sea.
In a clear signal to China, the U.S. Defense Department has deployed 5,000 troops for a major military exercise with the Philippines this month. The drills, which got underway this week, include an amphibious landing on the Philippines coast and a mock assault on an oil rig, with a small contingent of Australian forces also participating. To add symbolic weight to the event, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will visit the Philippines next week to observe the Balikatan exercises.
China has denied it is laying the ground to impose its military reach over the strategic region. But its neighbors and the United States are not convinced. Having built up artificial islands in a massive dredging project in disputed waters, Beijing has constructed long runways and deep harbors that can accommodate military aircraft and naval ships. In response, Indonesia this week followed through on plans to deploy advanced air-defense systems on its Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reported Tuesday.
Underlying much of the jockeying for position among regional powers is the quest for fish. China’s huge and growing appetite for seafood — the country is expected to account for almost 40 percent of global fish consumption by 2030 — has been coupled with overfishing in the Western Central Pacific and South China Sea. That, in turn, pushes growing numbers of Chinese fishermen ever further away from their coast in search of shrimp, tuna, and scad.
Neighbors like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines have also bolstered their own fishing fleets to ensure an adequate haul of fish, which makes up a crucial share of protein in their people’s diets, as well as plays a significant part in economic growth and job creation. Those waters are one of the few areas in the world where fish catches have steadily increased since 1950.
But China’s huge fishing fleet isn’t just meant to help feed 1.3 billion people: It’s also a weapon in Beijing’s efforts to assert control over the tiny reefs and atolls that dot the South China Sea. To bolster its territorial claims, China points to its fishermen who, for centuries, plied the waters around the Spratly and Paracel islands and uses their presence there today to strengthen its claims.
What’s more, for decades, China has employed fishing boats in disputed waters as the eyes and ears of its coast guard and military vessels, blurring the line between peaceful, commercial activity and military muscle-flexing.
“It used to be [that] the flag followed trade, helping you acquire colonies; now, the [Chinese] flag follows fishing, helping you acquire indisputable sovereignty,” said James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. “In both cases, private interests act as the vanguard, justifying the state’s reaching for the gun.”
In the last few years, countries around the region have begun seizing, ramming, or destroying each other’s fishing boats amid claims of poaching and territorial encroachment. Australia demolished Vietnamese clam fishers in 2014, as Palau did a year later. Indonesia’s destruction of a Chinese fishing boat in 2015 sparked the ire of Beijing, and last month Indonesia’s government formally protested the presence of Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels in its waters. Just this spring, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador over what it called the illegal encroachment by 100 China-flagged fishing vessels. The Chinese coast guard rammed a Philippine fishing boat in March and a Vietnamese vessel, too. Just this month, Vietnam seized what it called a “disguised” Chinese fishing boat.
Fishing matters greatly for the economies and bellies of nearly all the states in the region. Indonesia’s more than 460,000 fishing boats account for 3 percent of GDP and help bring in the bulk of the country’s animal protein, critical to fighting malnutrition. Those vessels, big and small, are also the tip of the spear of the Indonesian government’s new maritime strategy, meant to help knit together the sprawling islands of the world’s largest archipelago. Fisheries play a similarly important role in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
Indonesia’s crusade against illegal fishing includes an international campaign to get more countries to view poaching at sea as a type of organized crime, which would put efforts to crack down on illegal fishermen on sounder legal footing. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has itself begun to focus on reining in the “outlaw sea” and has largely supported Indonesia’s efforts.
Alleged encroachment and illegal fishing by Chinese vessels that threaten those fisheries is one reason states in the region have begun pushing back so hard. That’s especially true because China has dredged huge amounts of the seafloor to create artificial islands to house harbors, airfields, and air-defense emplacements. That dredging, many scientists say, has decimated the coral reefs that birthed the South China Sea’s diverse marine population.
But many experts see another, more ominous edge to China’s huge and aggressive fishing fleet: It is consistently used as a geopolitical weapon by leadership in Beijing.
In 2013, newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a surprise visit to the southern fishing port of Tanmen, where he urged local fishermen to stake their claim to the waters around the disputed islands. More recently, the Straits Times reports, owners of Chinese fishing vessels received cash payments of about $30,000 from the government to take up station around disputed features like the Spratly Islands and help solidify de facto Chinese possession — regardless of whether they do any actual fishing.
With subsidies from Beijing to pay for fuel, and under the protection of coast guard vessels, the Chinese fishermen are heading to distant waters off Indonesia in unprecedented numbers, Poling, the Asia maritime expert, said.
“They are being escorted by Chinese coast guards. They’re organizing these very large flotillas that go out for a couple weeks and then go back,” Poling said. “It’s becoming much more organized, much more frequent. The scale is changing.”
China’s commercial fishing fleet also often serves as a surrogate navy, bolstering Beijing’s claims and acting as a vanguard in disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, according to experts and U.S. military officers.
U.S. officials privately acknowledged that the growing number of fishing disputes in the South China Sea pose a danger to security. Beijing, in particular, is using civilian fishing vessels as a way of gradually imposing its maritime claims, the officials said.
“China is using a steady progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed areas and avoid escalation to military conflict,” a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP.
U.S. officials also voice concern about the long-term environmental effect of vast dredging operations carried out by China over the past two years, which have severely damaged or destroyed coral reefs.
Using fishermen to plant the flag rather than cast a net is nothing new for China, according to scholars. Forty years ago, when China and Vietnam got into a brief shooting war over the Paracel Islands, Chinese fishing boats were the “first responders,” used to help the small and under-equipped Chinese military fend off Vietnamese forces. China reached for a similar playbook in the 2012 standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.
“In contrast to a naval presence that could have conveyed belligerence, the trawlers gave China a low-profile means to back up its territorial claims,” noted Toshi Yoshihara, also a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, in a recent study of the 1974 campaign.
Holmes refers to that as “small-stick diplomacy.”
Photo credit: SEI RATIFA/AFP/Getty Images
Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career. @KFJ_FP
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