Fishermen on Frontlines: militarization of seas

indonesia blows up foreign fishing boats

On April 5th, 2016, Indonesia’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…

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…. 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, on December of 2015 two dozen African countries called on China to stop illegal fishing off west Africa. And on April 2016 our Chinese fishermen were freed from detention in Argentina.

China’s government sees 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….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…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.

Excerpts from Trawling for trouble: Why do Chinese fishermen keep getting arrested, Economist,  Apr. 16, 2016, at 34

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