Illegal fishing: A global problem, but not one the US Navy can solve
Mark J. Valencia says a recent proposal to treat illegal fishing as a global threat which the US Navy must address is not just impractical, but also creates suspicion and adds to the risk of war
According to James G. Stavridis, 16th supreme commander of Nato and current dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, US fisheries law enforcement should be militarised. He and co-author Johan Bergenas, in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, argue in support of a provision in the pending US National Defence Authorisation Act that requests the US Navy help fight illegal fishing. This is a flawed and blinkered proposal.
Stavridis and Bergenas say the rapid decline of fish stocks around the world is an “existential threat to roughly a billion people” and conclude that “fish scarcity could be the next catalyst” for a war over natural resources. This is not just hyperbole; militarising fisheries law enforcement increases the likelihood of military clashes, particularly as other countries follow the US lead.
Yes, many fisheries around the world, particularly in the South China Sea, are overfished and under threat from illegal fishing. The article implies that Chinese fishing boats are the world’s main illegal fishers. Indeed, they allege that “the Chinese government is directly enabling and [militarising] the worldwide robbing of ocean resources”. China’s boats do contribute significantly to illegal fishing but – at least from China’s perspective – not in Southeast Asian countries’ claimed waters in the South China Sea.
In April, Indonesia announced that 317 fishing boats had been confiscated and destroyed since President Joko Widodo took office in October 2014. Of this, 142 were from Vietnam, 76 from the Philippines and 49 from Malaysia. Only one was from China.
Despite the media hyperbole regarding the transgression of China’s oil rig into Vietnam’s claimed waters and the Natuna incident in which a Chinese coast guard vessel intervened in an Indonesian arrest of its fishing vessels for violating Indonesia’s laws, these were isolated incidents.
China actually tries to protect what is left of fisheries in what it perceives is its waters by imposing seasonal bans on fishing in the South China Sea. Ironically, the US and South China Sea claimant countries oppose China’s unilateral seasonal fishing bans there. They do so because they consider China’s claims to some areas in which it applies its ban to be invalid under international law. They may well be. But if protecting fisheries were really their prime concern, these Southeast Asian claimants would join in the bans while reserving their rights to contest China’s extensive claims.
In peacetime, China’s coastguard, like that of the US, is separate from its navy. Its main missions are search and rescue and law enforcement. While China may accompany its fishing vessels in other countries’ claimed waters, it claims those waters and their resources for itself. Indeed, it believes the resources are its own. While protecting its fishing vessels in disputed waters may be “illegal”, it is at least understandable. While the international legal jury has rendered its verdict against China’s claims, the political/negotiations jury is still out. Such protection of fisheries vessels is not “militarisation”.
Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia have generally shown good judgment, not using navies in maritime resource conflicts. Such use of naval vessels could be interpreted as a threat of use of force, a violation of the UN Charter, and trigger a response in kind.
The authors justify their recommendation by conflating illegal fishing with weapons and drug smuggling, alleging that fishermen who are out of work because of declining fish stocks become smugglers of weapons and drugs. This is quite a stretch – especially without evidence. Nevertheless, they then suggest that illegal fishing in the US exclusive economic zone be recognised as a direct threat to US interests in its official national security strategy.
But where their proposal really goes off the rails is when they suggest that the US Navy “expand its partnership with the Coast Guard through the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative”, which “allows” both “military branches to enforce fishing laws, combat transnational organised crime and enhance regional security in the Central and South Pacific”. They recommend replication of this naval mission in other oceans. They seem blissfully unaware that some may see this proposal as a cynical use of mounting concerns over declining fish stocks and illegal fishing as an excuse for unwanted – even hegemonistic – militarisation of the seas, with motives extending far beyond fisheries protection.
There are some practical and political concerns with their recommendations as well. They assume the US Navy can add global fisheries law enforcement to its missions, even with its ever-increasing assignments to global trouble spots and recent rash of accidents, maybe in part due to overstretched crews.
Even more blinkered, the proposal assumes most countries will go along with having the US Navy patrol their waters. Most countries in Asia and the Pacific jealously guard their sovereignty and would find it politically unpopular to farm out this function to the US Navy. Some countries may fear that like the initial US proposals for the Proliferation Security Initiative to prevent trade in weapons of mass destruction, fisheries law “enforcement” could evolve into a US-led posse roaming the seas interdicting at will vessels undertaking what it unilaterally deems undesirable activities. Even worse, the suggestion fails to recognise that the US example would be followed by other nations and greatly increase the danger of international incidents.
That such a proposal may be taken seriously is a sad sign. Militarising civilian functions may be a militarist’s dream but could easily become an international relations nightmare. In peacetime, confining law enforcement to civilian-administered coastguards is the better approach.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China