Close encounters with the fishy kind: A Look at China’s ‘Fisheries war’

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Chinese fishing vessels in Zhubi Reef,  Spratly islands, South China Sea (AP Photo/Xinhua)

On March 4, the South China Morning Post published an online video of the Argentine Coast Guard’s brief yet tense encounter with a Chinese fishing vessel a few kilometers off the coast of its southern Argentine waters.

The Hua Xiang 801—a grey, seemingly dilapidated metal ship anchored beneath a cold black sky and a thick veil of fog—was caught fishing illegally by Argentine authorities.

This prompted the Argentine Coast Guard to sound off one of several warnings. “Hua Xiang 801! Hua Xiang 801! Stop your engines, stop your engines! We are prepared to open fire on you! We are prepared to open fire on you!”

When Hua Xiang 810 refused the Coast Guard a reply even after a barrage of audio and light signals, the Argentine Coast Guard instructed its gunner to open fire at one quarter of the length of the fishing boat. The gunner sent the first five slugs into the fishing boat’s haul.

The Argentine Coast Guard vessel, called Mantilla, sent out another warning shortly after. “Hua Xiang 801! Hua Xiang 801! You have a responsibility for your ship and your crew, over! We are prepared to open fire on you, over!”

The second barrage of live fire took longer than the first, firing multiple rounds from its machinegun.

After the three-hour standoff, the fishing boat Hua Xiang 801 retreated into international waters. China’s maritime authorities, the China Fisheries Law Enforcement, particular, swiftly issued a statement which was published in the Global Times on the very same day.

China said that if investigations prove that the Hua Xiang 801 violated maritime laws, “China will not tolerate or shelter them. They shall be punished accordingly.”

Chinese fishermen illegally fishing off the coast of Argentina are no strangers to Argentine show of military force. In the middle of February, the Argentine Navy opened fire on Chinese boats deemed illegally fishing off the San Jorge Gulf.

Even earlier, sometime March 2016, the Chinese fishing vessel, the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010, sunk when the Argentine Coast Guard fired on the boat during an hour-long chase.

Later that year, South Korea’s Coast Guard fleet also fired upon Chinese fishing vessels caught illegally fishing along South Korean waters.

The Institute for Maritime and Ocean Affairs, Inc., a “private, non-stock, non-profit corporation organized to conduct research, studies and fora on maritime and ocean affairs of the Republic of the Philippines” published a story on June as to how an Indonesian corvette warship fired warning shots as the Qiong Dan Zhou 19038 and eleven more Chinese fishing vessels were found illegally fishing off the Natuna islands region.

According to the report, “The Chinese vessel, which has been identified by IHS Maritime as Qiong Dan Zhou 19038, has since been detained with its crew of six men and a woman on the TNI-AL’s base at Ranai in Riau Islands. The rest of the fishing vessels in the group successfully fled the scene.”

In July 2017, Taiwan’s Coast Guard engaged and fired on two Chinese fishing vessels fishing less than 25 nautical miles off the coast of Taiwan’s Penghu Island chain. Inspite of several radio warnings, the Chinese fishing vessel, reportedly from Guangdong Province, refused to stop for inspection.

The incident saw two Chinese fishermen injured by rubber bullets.

These are but a handful of incidents showing Chinese fishermen’s brazen attempts to purportedly violate existing maritime laws and how these countries—Argentina, Taiwan, and South Korea, in particular—had dealt with the intrusions.

In fact, these countries—including Ecuador, Japan (where a Chinese vessel collided with a Japanese ship) and South Africa—share one thing in common: They all seem to be wrestling to protect their maritime resources from what is now being called China’s “Fisheries War” or “Hybrid War”.

This so-called “pelagic fishing,” the Japan Times said in one opinion piece, is an “important part of Beijing’s national policy.”

“Writing for The Washington Post in mid-September, James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, warned that China is waging a “hybrid warfare” in fisheries. He bitterly accused Beijing of mobilizing not only fishermen but also armed forces in a bid to secure fishery resources all over the world.

“‘Hybrid warfare’ is a complex strategy of creating unrest in a country or area through conflicts among the citizens or destruction of infrastructure, and then sending the military on the pretext of quelling the violence. The way Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 is cited as a typical example of hybrid warfare.

“Stavridis, who retired only a year after the Crimean annexation, is well acquainted with such warfare. That the admiral describes the Chinese fishing expedition as constituting hybrid warfare strongly suggests that China has gone much further than simply overexploiting fishery resources.

“Pelagic fishing fleets are usually composed of large ships of more than 100 tons. China recently enlarged its fleet by adding some 400 new ships between 2014 and 2016, bringing to about 2,600 the total number of vessels operating far away from home.

“They are operating not only in the northern Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean, off the African coasts and in the southern Atlantic off South America. In stark contrast, the Japanese and American pelagic fishing fleets have declined to a size of less than 10 percent each of China’s. China’s total haul exceeded 60 million tons a few years ago, accounting for more than one-third of the global total.

“This rapid expansion is attributed to aggressive operations of the Chinese pelagic fleets, with the full support of the Chinese government.”

The opinion piece also raised an important point about Japan as a former pelagic fisher. “Japan’s pelagic fishing has long been on the wane due to the aging of the nation’s fishermen and a shortage of fishing crews ready to go on expeditions. Officials at the Fisheries Agency are placing hope on aquiculture as the only means of securing a stable supply of seafood both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, a predominant view within the fishing industries around the world is that aquiculture cannot be an answer to Chinese overexploitation, since it would require huge amounts of fish meat to feed the fish stocks being raised by aquiculture.”

It has long been apparent that armed encounters along the disputed regions and the sovereign waters of other countries had been going on for several years.

Way back in 2012, CNN World+ reported an incident involving the Russian Coast Guard and two Chinese fishing vessels caught fishing along Russian-controlled waters.

CNN based its report on Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti News Agency, which said, “Warning shots were fired at one vessel during a three-hour pursuit by Russian Coast Guard, which eventually rammed the vessel and soldiers fired directly on the ship when sailors resisted being boarded. No one was killed or injured in the incident.”

The ship was said to have been carrying 22.5 metric tons of squid and a crew of 17 who failed to show documents allowing them to trawl in Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. “A second Chinese fishing vessel, with 19 crew members, was also detained in nearby waters,” the report said.

The Philippines has had its share of encounters with Chinese military ships and fishing vessels, oftentimes to the country’s own humiliation. The Associated Press (AP) once reported in 2015 about how a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed three Philippine fishing boats nearby the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

While our Department of Foreign Affairs swiftly lodged a protest with Beijing on the said incident, nothing seems to have been done about it. Two years later, in April, the Philippine vessel Princess Johann was fired upon by China’s Coast Guard somewhere near the Spratly Islands.

On March 4, tensions between China and Filipino fishermen seem to have escalated.

According to a report by Frances Mangosing of Inquirer.Net, “Mayor Roberto del Mundo of Kalayaan—a town in Palawan from which Pag-asa, internationally known as Thitu Island, is administered—said Filipino fishermen were being driven away by Chinese vessels whenever they came anywhere near the closest sandbar to Pag-asa, located about three kilometers from the island.

On the eastern edge of the disputed Spratly archipelago. (Armed Forces of the Philippines via AP)

“There are three sandbars between Pag-asa and Philippine-claimed but China-controlled Zamora Reef, known by its international name Subi.”

The story was based on a video uploaded by the mayor on the internet.

According to Mayor del Mundo, he counted around 50 Chinese vessels anchored on the left side of the island where the shallow parts of the sandbars are located. About four to five boats are within 500-meter range, the mayor claimed.

“To avoid risking confrontation, the mayor said some of the Filipino fishermen would instead explore the fishing grounds located on the other side of the island, where the catch is just as abundant.”

Based on a 2015 census, the Kalayaan municipality boasts of a population of 184 people. It is part of the Spratly Islands, which includes Pag-asa located 280 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa, and 932 kilometers southwest of Metro Manila.

China’s population today stands at 1.418 billion including its five autonomous regions. The People’s Republic has a population density of 145 people per square kilometer, and roughly 375 people per square mile. Its urban areas, however, posit a monstrous figure of 3,800 people per square kilometer or 9,900 people per square mile.

Apparently, the largest country in the world is faced with a gargantuan task of feeding all these people.

It appears that the race to secure maritime resources for a burgeoning population has fueled much of the tensions in the West Philippine Sea and other sovereign borders. China’s rush to fill its fish basket has put the region’s peace initiatives at risk of floundering.

Clearly, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s swing toward China and not the country’s traditional allies has raised questions as to the feasibility of such a turn.

With loans from China and elsewhere swelling to the trillions, topped with what seems to be a slew of cowardly acts in the face of China’s intrusions, many fear that Pres. Duterte is setting the Philippines for a major fall. For what justifiable reasons?

This begs another question: Is the world about to face its most difficult challenge in the coming years: A global war for resources? Must Filipinos look the other way? G



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