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China Is Not The Greatest Fish Thief In The South China Sea – Analysis

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Most casual observers– if asked which country is the greatest fish thief in the South China Sea– would quickly answer “China”. After all it is widely portrayed as the general ‘bad boy’ of the region.  This perception was perpetuated by a recent flurry of articles in prominent media including the New York Times that highlighted China’s aggressive illegal fishing in Indonesia’s claimed waters.   https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/world/asia/Indonesia-south-china-sea-fishing.htmlhttps://thediplomat.com/2020/03/indonesias-natuna-challenge/ 

The articles criticized China for not preventing its flagged vessels from fishing in others’ claimed 200 nautical miles (200 nm) Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) – in other words, ‘stealing’ their fish. But this perception needs to be put in perspective. While it may be fashionable to demonize China regarding its policies and practices in the South China Sea https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2111851/illegal-fishing-global-problem-not-one-us-navy-can-solve, it certainly is not the only country that is stealing fish and challenging others’ ownership of them there.  Indeed, it appears to not even be the major fish ‘thief’ in the South China Sea.

 China’s illegal fishing is but the tip of the iceberg of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) by several countries in the South China Sea. Due to lax enforcement and reporting requirements, there are many unknowns regarding this problem –especially as to precisely who is fishing what, how much and where. Vessel self-reporting is notoriously unreliable. Analysts have used satellite photos and vessel automatic identification systems (AIS) to track fishing boats operating in others claimed waters.  But satellite photos do not give the regional picture or distinguish between say a genuine fishing boat, a supply vessel or maritime militia. https://international.thenewslens.com/article/112819 

Some vessels do not have AIS, purposely turn it off, or conceal their identity as a fishing vessel.  In this situation, reported arrests of boats by flag can indicate the relative degree of a country’s illegal fishing. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush. Of course these data also do not tell the whole story–and they do not factor in the relative cleverness of captains to evade detention and arrest, or political and relative power considerations regarding enforcement against a particular country’s fishers.  But it would seem to be a rough indication of the relative degree of illegal fishing by a country’s flag vessels.

Vessels arrested by Indonesia for illegal fishing in its waters  – in decreasing order  – come from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and China.  In April 2017, Indonesia announced that 317 fishing boats were confiscated and destroyed since October 2014 when President Joko Widodo took office. Of this total, 142 were from Vietnam, 76 from the Philippines and 49 from Malaysia. Only one was from China. In August 2018, Indonesia sank 125 foreign vessels –among them 86 from Vietnam, 20 from Malaysia and 14 from the Philippines.https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/indonesia-sinks-86-vietnamese-fishing-boats-3797210.htmlhttps://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/jokowi-govt-destroys-317-boats-fishing-illegally Just in January, Indonesia detained 18 foreign fishing vessels – 11 Vietnamese and 7 Malaysian–but none from China. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnamese-fishermen-face-jail-time-for-trawling-in-indonesia-3906377.html

Since 2006, Malaysian authorities have detained a total of 748 vessels and 7,203 Vietnamese crew members on suspicion of illegal fishing. https://www.seafoodsource.com/news/supply-trade/illegal-fishing-heats-up-diplomatic-exchanges-between-vietnam-malaysia-and-indonesia 

Vietnam is by far the most frequent flag of the region’s illegal fishers. This is understandable since it also has the largest fishing fleet operating in the South China Sea—129,519 vessels vs 92,312 for China (Taiwan has about 232,000 vessels but only a small portion operate in the South China Sea.) https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_oUJE4kCTZrbVI4N2tTVjlpYTA/view   

In the case of fishing in Indonesia’s claimed EEZ, Vietnam has an excuse depending on where the offending vessels were fishing.  According to its interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it claims an EEZ that overlaps with that of Indonesia beginning about 100 nautical miles north of Natuna Besar.  China also claims the area as “traditional fishing grounds”. According to Geng Shuang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman “Whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters”. This claim is not supported by UNCLOS—to which all are parties.

In late December 2019, in an incident that was severely criticized in the region and by some U.S. analysts, 63 Chinese fishing boats accompanied by 3 Coast Guard vessels entered Indonesia’s claimed EEZ off Natuna.   Indonesia protested vehemently and even sent warships and jet fighters to the area. https://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/01/05/20/indonesias-new-years-message-to-china-over-the-natunas-dispute-a-game-changerhttps://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3045458/indonesia-stands-china-who-will-follow-southeast-asiahttps://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/indonesia-china-dispute-natuna-12244200https://www.eurasiareview.com/15012020-will-indonesia-unite-asean-against-chinas-coercion-oped/  But in this instance China admitted that its fishers had taken fish from Indonesia’s claimed waters and ordered its fishing – –  boats to at least temporarily – – leave Indonesia’s claimed EEZ.  https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3046457/china-admits-fishing-indonesian-claimed-waters-south-china    

That is more than most other governments have done when caught ‘red-handed’ like Vietnam.

Vietnam’s reputation for lack of control of its fleet was confirmed in 2017 when the European Commission (EU) issued it a “yellow card”.  Under agreed regulations, “non-EU countries identified as having inadequate measures in place to prevent and deter illegal, unreported, and unregulated [IUU]  fishing may be issued with a formal warning (yellow card) to improve. If they fail to do so, they may have their fish banned from the EU market (red card)”. http://www.iuuwatch.eu/2017/10/eu-yellow-cared-vietnam/  

This warning may not have been given because of its fishing illegally in the South China Sea but it reflects general lack of control of their flagged fishing vessels

However, contributing to its appearance of ‘bad’ behavior, China’s coast guard has intervened with force to prevent Indonesia from enforcing its fishing laws.  But again it is not alone.  In early 2019 a Vietnamese coast guard vessel rammed an Indonesian naval warship as it was attempting to arrest a Vietnamese fishing vessel suspected of fishing illegally in its waters. https://www.thejakartapost.com/seasia/2019/06/24/indonesia-vietnam-speed-up-eez-delimitation.html

Vietnam has been very aggressive in its response to what it sees as China’s illegal incursions in its claimed maritime zones—although it understandably may view incursions for petroleum related activities more severely than illegal fishing. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3018332/beijing-and-hanoi-stand-over-chinese-survey-ship-mission  

But China’s analysts are firing back. The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) at Peking University used remote sensing data to reveal that many Vietnamese fishing boats were operating illegally in China’s internal and territorial waters – –  as well as in its undisputed EEZ https://scspi.pku.edu.cn/analysis/501624.htm .

Ironically, the response by Vietnamese analysts to these allegations  has been similar to that of China’s analysts regarding exposure of China’s ‘massing’ of fishing vessels near Thitu – –  denial and alternative explanations for the observations. https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/did-vietnam-militia-really-swarm-a-china-military-base/  

The point is that in the South China Sea there are many fish thieves and China is not the greatest of them.

Another version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3079330/demonising-china-does-nothing-untangle-contesting-claims-south


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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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