Fishing disputes; a proxy for territorial conflict.

The South China Sea

Over-fished and under-policed by a corrupt, negligent bureaucracy, China’s territorial fish stocks, after sustaining the worlds most populous nation for thousands of years, are now collapsed. Conversely the consequences of this development seem to be being felt by China’s coastal neighbours the strongest, as China’s 300,000 boat fishing fleet looks elsewhere for their catch. As China’s local waters yield less and less fish, Chinese fishing boats can now be seen trawling (sometimes illegally) across the oceans of the world; in the Mid to South Pacific in the East and around the coasts of Africa in West. Because of this and the large distances to new open fishing grounds, China’s huge fleet has also continuosly been caught illegally operating in the national and contested waters of its neighbours.

Though the CCP has admitted in some news releases to the development of legislation to solve the problem by reducing the national fishing fleet by a third, the reality of the situation is that China’s food demands are growing faster than they can be satiated. The CCP (like with its other industries) is unlikely to endanger its maritime food industry for the sake of conservation or East Asian diplomacy. Likewise on issues of upholding the sanctity of its neighbour’s territorial China has a long standing belligerent stance that is unlikely to change. However when its fleet provokes international headlines like in the recent stabbing of two Korean Coastguard members by a Chinese fishing captain, has China attempted to tone down the overly nationalistic responses of the past. Chinese worries about balancing its ambition against alienating its neighbours into greater collusion with a more engaged US are more meaningful as Beijing sees its superpower ambitions hemmed in by its wary ASEAN and North Eastern neighbours. Recent anti Chinese protests in friendly Vietnam, along with anger in the less diplomatically friendly nations of Korea, Japan and Taiwan are the results of China overextending itself, and considering America’s new interest in the region, it now seems that China is in desperate need of a new strategy.

Chinese fishermen resisting the Korean Coastguard

Unfortunately for the region as a whole, China is in a bind; it cannot easily climb down from previous nationalistic assertions over contested waters, nor can it easily reign in its fishing fleet, the members of which seem determined to act forcefully, even when they are caught illegally fishing in foreign waters. The result seems to be that Beijing, through its media, wants to straddle both a nationalistic stance and that of an innocent and rational actor until the issue dies down; so far it has been unconvincing.

On the issue of the conflict between the South Korean coastguard and illegal Chinese fishermen, especially regarding the recent murder of a member of that Coastguard service, China has only clumsily played the part of the good neighbour. Articles by the Global Times and Xinhua news began their PR responses poorly by challenging the truth of South Korean allegations, downplaying the murder as an “alleged stabbing” and then condemning the response of the angry Korean press and people as “overheated”, “out of control” and “irrational”.

Still having not offered any more condolence than “If the… coast guard was truly stabbed… Chinese public opinion will not take the fisherman’s side”, an editorial from the Global Times then went on to belligerently attack the Korean response to the event. It began by challenging Korea’s jurisdictional right to arrest Chinese fishermen caught in their waters, offers excuses for an “unjustifiable defence” against the murder; ‘that perhaps the Coastguard provoked the attack’ and then called into question the fairness of Korea’s judiciary in bluntly implying that the fisherman could be treated poorly and may not be given a fair trial. Unbelievably the article then went on to sincerely state its disbelief at the Korean media’s continual attacks on China and warned against further Korean provocation. This despite the fact that this is not the first time a South Korean Coastguard member has been killed by Chinese fishermen (one was killed and six were injured in 2008) as the rate of apprehensions for illegal Chinese fishing boats increases (20% this year alone to 470!).

This clumsy churlishness from Beijing beggars belief and makes one think that either it’s a deliberate provocation or proof that China really has no clue how to constructively and sincerely solve disputes with foreign states. Now, more than two weeks after the incident, China has yet to apologise or offer any kind of condolence more than noting the “unfortunate” nature of the death and paying lip service to its obligation towards respecting the territorial integrity of its neighbours. For their part the Korean side is still demanding an apology, is considering arming their Coastguard and is increasing the fines for illegal fishermen.

Unsurprisingly Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines; all close Chinese maritime neighbours have experienced similar issues with bolshie Chinese fishermen recently and all have condemned, to varying degrees of boisterousness (none have had success) the CPC’s indifference. Taiwan, a nation with complicated ties to the mainland has not been engaged in violent conflict with fishermen or the Chinese Coastguard, but the large numbers of Illegal Chinese boats in Taiwanese waters have also resulted in a large increase in fines and promises to step up its policing measures. Likewise have Vietnam and the Philippines have had trouble with ever increasing numbers of Chinese fishermen in their territorial waters. On the flip side, Vietnam especially has had its own fishermen blatantly intimidated and harassed by patrolling Chinese Coastguard boats in contested (and sometimes their own) waters on the orders of the Chinese government in Hainan.

Issues with Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese however, perhaps in equal parts due to historic tensions and Japan’s significantly larger and more powerful Coastguard, have been much more incendiary than run ins between the Chinese fishing industry and other nations. Notably the Japanese have resolutely patrolled the oceans around their nation, including areas that China claims as its own, and has made prosecuting illegal fishermen a priority. With both the fishermen and Japanese Coastguard being as equally determined it is obviously no surprise that the increasing conflict generated by more boats and belligerent crewmen could lead to a serious incident. That incident came in 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the contested Diayou/Senkaku Islands, resulting in the arrest of the captain and a diplomatic fight which led to anti Japanese protests across China, trade sanctions, the downgrading of relations and eventually a Japanese back-down. What was originally a stubborn battle concerning differing versions of the conflict was eventually put to bed when a Japanese Coastguard member  released a video of the incident confirming the Japanese version of the story, but by then Japan had already backed down and the issue had ran its course. In Japanese waters however the war against illegal fishing is ongoing, the Japanese feel bullied by the Chinese who certainly manufactured the conflict and let down by their government; the issue could very easily relapse should either side wish it.

It seems regardless of whether a fight breaks out in contested waters, Chinese citizens are arrested or if foreign nationals are killed or injured that the impetus for conflict has been the attitude of Chinese fishing crews, encouraged by the CCP’s nationalistic responses. As such the two fundamental factors of the issue are China’s refusal to reign in its fleet and its wishy-washy responses to the confrontations that result; whereby incidents will be played down as “a normal fishery case” or inflated to impassioned diplomatic shut-downs seemingly at random.  China seems willing to play the conflict game to their benefit as situations warrant.  Chinese culpability is compounded in this case by its refusal to do anything about it, and means that the theory that this could be a strategy of Chinese escalation through ‘soft power’ cannot be ruled out. These disputes may be useful in compelling some neighbours to come to the negotiating table in a more compliant manner than would otherwise be the case, at the same time it allows China to size up the fighting spirit of its neighbours. Though China has in some cases tried to be diplomatic, the overwhelming amount of noise coming from Beijing on fisheries cases will not have been welcoming news to its neighbours, this could badly backfire. If China cannot find a more sincere and respectful way to address this issue in public then it is likely that the US will be able to increase the resolve of ASEAN nations in conjunction with its Korean and Japanese allies; tightening the noose around China even further.

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