WHY DO CHINESE FISHERMEN KEEP GETTING ARRESTED?
Apr 16th 2016 Economist
AS A deterrent it is wasteful, polluting and provocative. But it is also, Indonesia’s government insists, highly effective. On April 5th the country’s maritime-affairs minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, watched live feed from seven different places as 23 Malaysian and Vietnamese trawlers, seized for illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, were blown to smithereens. Since Joko Widodo assumed the presidency in 2014 and promised to look out for local fishing communities, Indonesia has now destroyed more than 170 foreign vessels. The government says the number of poachers has fallen, and the catch of the domestic fleet has increased. Now the combative and popular (at least at home) Miss Susi hopes that the country’s Supreme Court will allow her to destroy ten more vessels, seized for poaching in 2014 and coming from the country with more boats than any other involved in Asia’s huge and growing business of illegal fishing: China.
Indonesia is already seething with anger at China’s reaction to an incident last month in which a Chinese coastguard cutter rammed free a Chinese fishing boat as the Indonesian authorities were towing it to port, having just caught it poaching in waters off Indonesia’s Natuna islands. Eight of the crew were detained. The ninth has since managed to bring the boat back to the southern Chinese port of Beihai, escorted by the Chinese cutter. There he told the New York Times it was “probable” that he and his shipmates had been fishing in Indonesian waters. In fact, it seems almost certain. Indonesia’s possession of the Natunas is undisputed, and under international law the Chinese were well inside its “exclusive economic zone”. Yet China defended the crew by claiming they were in waters that were “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”. The waters are inside the sweeping “nine-dash line” that China draws on its maps (and even passports) to mark its claim over almost the entire South China Sea.
Chinese fishermen have been detained in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of whose maritime claims overlap with or mirror China’s. But it is not just in contested waters that they get into trouble. Chinese have also been detained in the Russian Far East, North Korea and Sri Lanka in recent years. In 2011 a Chinese fisherman stabbed a South Korean coastguard to death. The next year one was killed by the police in Palau, a tiny Pacific republic. Farther afield, last December two dozen African countries called on China to stop illegal fishing off west Africa. And just this week four Chinese fishermen were freed from detention in Argentina.
More than national sovereignty, what is driving these far-flung adventures is that China is by far the world’s largest consumer (and exporter) of fish. Chinese fish-consumption per person is twice the global average. Aquaculture has met much of this growing demand. But China’s wild catch also dwarfs that of other countries (13.9m tonnes in 2012, compared with 5.4m for Indonesia, 5.1m for America, 3.6m for Japan and 3.3m for India). Overfishing and pollution have blighted China’s inshore fisheries. Stocks are severely depleted: in the South China Sea, with a tenth of the global fish catch, inshore (coastal) fisheries have just 5-30% left of the stocks they had in the 1950s. Chinese fishermen are driven farther offshore and into distant waters.
China’s government encourages this, seeing food security as a priority and fishing as a good source of jobs (14m of them). In 2013 the president, Xi Jinping, visited Tanmen, a fishing port on the southern island of Hainan, and urged fishermen there to “build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish.” The government provides subsidies for new boats, fuel and navigation aids.
This does not necessarily make fishermen the tools of an expansionist policy. Indeed, the government has sometimes struggled to control Chinese fishermen, some of whose scrapes have surely embarrassed it. In a new paper in Marine Policy, a journal, on “Chinese fishermen in disputed waters”, Zhang Hongzhou, a scholar at RSIS, a think-tank in Singapore, reports on trips to Chinese fishing ports, including Tanmen. There he found that, rather than following Mr Xi’s exhortation, many fishermen had taken up the wholly illegal but lucrative trade in endangered turtles and giant clams, which are protected species.
Nevertheless, fishing can have strategic uses. Like China’s splurge on building artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea, the habitual presence of big numbers of Chinese boats in disputed waters congeals into facts on the water that become harder to dispute. It also underpins the notion that China has “traditional” claims. And at times fishermen have indeed been used to advance those claims. In 1974 armed fishing trawlers acted as China’s advance guard as it seized the southern part of the Paracel archipelago from the regime of the former South Vietnam. Similar tactics worked in driving the Philippines out of two other parts of the South China Sea: Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
Giving state backing to poaching or to fishing in contested waters is a dangerous ploy, however. The grave rise in tension with Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands in the East China Sea dates back to September 2010, when a Chinese trawler, apprehended for illegal fishing, rammed a Japanese coastguard vessel. As the seas become more militarised, the risks of clashes mount. To date, the Chinese navy has rarely been involved. But some Chinese fishing ports have expanded their “maritime militias”—ie, armed civilian vessels—and both China and other coastguards are becoming better armed. After China’s provocation in the Natunas, Indonesia says it will send marines, special forces, an army battalion, three frigates, a new radar system, drones and five F-16 fighter jets. But this probably won’t stop China and its fishermen from casting their nets ever wider.