Chinese fishing fleets threaten to inflame tensions in disputed seas
Thousands of vessels head to South China Sea after ban on catching fish in the area is lifted, but their presence could anger neighbouring states
The end of a fishing ban in the South China Sea could raise the risk of conflicts between China and its neighbours as mainland fishermen – usually under the protection of the coastguard – return to the disputed waters.
A fisherman from southern China’s port of Tanmen in Hainan province said fishing boats left for the area immediately after the ban – imposed to preserve fish stocks – was lifted on August 16.
“We have been there for so many years, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t go,” the fisherman who identified himself as Bao said.
“There’s no need to worry [about conflicts with other nations] as we have government vessels protecting us,” he said, referring to the coastguard ships.
Some 18,000 Chinese fishing boats in the province were expected to head to the South China Sea with the end of the 108-day ban moratorium on fishing in the area, Chinese tabloid Global Times reported, citing Hainan officials.
Fishing rights in the contested waters have long been central to the simmering territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, with the fleets being placed on the front line in the struggle to gain control of the tiny reefs and rocks in the area.
On the same day that the fishing ban was lifted, Gary Alejano, a congressman in the Philippines, claimed a Filipino fishing boat had been forced to leave waters close to Thitu Island by a Chinese vessel.
The Philippine-controlled island forms part of the Spratly chain, which is also claimed by Beijing, Taipei and Hanoi.
Citing military sources, Alejano said Chinese fishing boats and a coastguard vessel, accompanied by two vessels from the People’s Liberation Army Navy, had been operating in the waters for days, moves he described as “very alarming” and “threatening”.
“China has history of grabbing islands and harassing Filipino fishermen,” he said.
Satellite images from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies indicated there were nine Chinese fishing ships and two law enforcement vessels visible near Thitu on August 13.
There also appeared to be a Philippine fishing boat docked at unoccupied sandbars, possibly sent out from Thitu to investigate the Chinese presence.
The rise of the Chinese fishing fleet has already raised concerns in Japan, which has been involved in territorial disputes over Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands – which are known as Diaoyus in China.
Several hundred boats left from one fishing port in Zhejiang for the East China Sea on August 1 when the ban on fishing there was lifted, according to Chinese media.
The Japanese coastguard had stepped up its patrols to closely watch the movement of Chinese fishing boats and coastguard vessels near the Senkakus since the ban was lifted, according to Japanese media.
Last year, about 200 to 300 Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by the coastguard, sailed into the 12-nautical mile seas around the islands, according to the Japanese foreign ministry.
Japan later summoned the Chinese ambassador to Tokyo to lodge a protest.
Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst from RAND Corporation, said the end of the fishing ban had the potential to trigger tensions in both the East and South China seas.
“We should not forget that the lifting of the ban last year precipitated the incident between China and Japan in which Chinese fishing vessels ‘swarmed’ the Senkaku Island continuous zone and territorial seas, greatly challenging Japan’s capacity to respond,” he said.
“China’s recent presence near Thitu also bears monitoring, as China could decide to allow more Chinese to fish there than in the past and restrict Filipino fisherman from fishing.”
But Beijing and Manila have tried to play down bilateral tensions in the South China Sea since the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte decided to pursue reconciliation with Beijing after taking office last year.
In a move that analysts said was an attempt to reduce tensions, Beijing allowed Philippine fishing boats to return to waters near the Scarborough Shoal in October, the first time since it was seized by China after a stand-off involving in fishing boats and coastguards in 2012.
However, it remains unclear to what extent Beijing will be willing to share the area’s fishing rights.
An increase in the number of fishing vessels in the contested waters could still be a potential trigger, said Morris.
“The lifting of the ban also has the potential to showcase Beijing’s willingness to share fishing rights with other claimants, notably with Philippine fishermen in Scarborough, as they had in the past,” he said.
“Much depends on how flexible and accommodating a policy China wishes to adopt.”
While Duterte’s conciliatory stance towards China is unlikely to change, the uncertainty about Beijing’s willingness to share fishing rights could also trigger tensions with nations that have rival claims, especially when fishing remains an important source of income for many people.
In the latest move to enforce its claims in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, Indonesia has said it will rename the waters it claims as the North Natuna Sea.
Beijing has said the renaming “made no sense” and is “not conducive” to stability.
Morris said that while Vietnam was likely to continue to challenge China’s claims and actions in the area, Indonesia would have its hand forced by China’s presence and actions in North Natuna.
“Much depends on how far China is willing to go to restrict Indonesian fishermen in these
waters or stop Indonesian patrol vessels arresting Chinese ships suspected of illegal fishing.”