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China is waging a global fisheries war

Pelagic fishing has become an important part of Beijing's national policy

Every time there is talk about a Japanese favorite seafood like Pacific saury and squid disappearing from tables due to a shortage in supplies, news reports tend to lay the blame on overexploitation of fish stocks by China. Very little is known, however, about the fact that China’s pelagic fishing fleet has ballooned to about 3,000 vessels, and that the government of President Xi Jinping does not shy away from conflicts with other nations on the other side of the globe. Indeed, China is waging a fisheries war on a global scale.

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 in 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.

Illegal fishing operations

In August, the Ecuadoran authorities captured a Chinese fishing boat and took its 20 crew members into custody for illegal fishing near the Galapagos Islands. The ship was loaded with 300 tons of sharks, including hammerhead sharks, indicating that Chinese think nothing of operating near the world heritage site to obtain shark fins, a luxury food item. The captain of the ship was sentenced to three years in jail.

In March last year, an Argentine coast guard patrol ship exchanged fire with a Chinese fishing trawler operating illegally within the country’s territorial waters, and sank the trawler. According to the Argentine government, the sinking was unavoidable because the Chinese boat repeatedly tried to ram the patrol ship despite repeated warnings. The incident, which took place in waters rich in squid, shows that Chinese fishermen are not afraid of going to the farthest points from their homeland and getting into armed conflict with local authorities.

Two months after the incident, another Chinese squid fishing boat was caught off the coast of South Africa. South Africa had long refrained from taking tough actions against China — as a fellow member of the BRICS group of emerging economies — but apparently the South African government ran out of patience with the repeated rampages of Chinese fishermen.

In waters closer to their homeland, too, Chinese fishermen almost constantly resort to audacious acts. Near the Indonesian islands of Natuna, over which China claims sovereignty, the Indonesian Navy opened fire on Chinese fishing boats three times during 2016 alone for illegally catching marine resources. Earlier this year, Jakarta declared once again that waters within 200 nautical miles of the islands fall within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing rebuffed the declaration as “meaningless,” however, by claiming the islands were within the “Nine-Dash Line” demarcation of its territorial waters. Other countries in the region such as the Philippines and Vietnam are also beset with fisheries conflicts with China, along with territorial disputes, in the South China Sea.

Beijing directs fishing policy

All these incidents suggest that the key reason Chinese fishermen clash with other countries in many corners of the world is China’s ambition of securing sufficient volumes of fishery resources.

China has been sending fishing vessels manned with armed crews — called the “Maritime Liberation Army Militia” — to waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. But such actions should be understood not only for their political purpose of highlighting China’s territiorial claim over the islands, but as part of the global fisheries warfare waged by Beijing.

Zhang Hongzhou, a senior research fellow at Nangyang Technological University of Singapore, says that the Chinese government provided the domestic fishing industry with $22 billion in subsidies over the five years from 2011 to 2015. The sum does not include aid provided by local authorities. This proves that expanding China’s pelagic fishing has become an important part of national policy by the government.

Adm. Stavridis warns against at the possibility of the United States becoming the next target of the Chinese pelagic fishermen, since the U.S. has a larger EEZ than any other country in the world. Indeed, a growing number of Chinese fishing boats are operating in the Caribbean Sea.

Apparently wishing to avoid any direct conflict with the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard, Beijing is seeking to conclude fishery agreements with the Bahamas and other countries in the region. Yet, a ranking U.S. Coast Guard official has labeled Chinese pelagic fleets as a clear military threat, and warned that the U.S. must guard against invasion into its EEZ by Chinese militia aboard those fishing boats.

Feeling the highest degree of threats from Chinese fishing expeditions are West African countries like Senegal and Sierra Leone. Small African fishing boats are no match for large 100-ton plus Chinese vessels, and poorly equipped local coast guards have no means of stopping overexploitation by the Chinese ships. Damage incurred from the Chinese fishing is estimated to reach the equivalent of hundreds of billions of yen each year. Throughout West Africa, large numbers of local fishermen have lost their means of living due to overexploitation by the Chinese fishing vessels and are being forced to seek refuge in Western Europe. Overfishing by the Chinese is creating an international political crisis.

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.

As the Japanese face the prospect of delicious autumnal fishes disappearing from their dishes, they should give thought to the global fisheries warfare quietly taking place in the distant oceans.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English articles of the magazine can be read at www.sentaku-en.com