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A boat being blown up by the Indonesian government in 2016 after it was seized for illegal fishing. Photo: AFP

The US wants to take on China over illegal fishing in the South China Sea. Why is Asean wary?

  • Analysts say countries in the region welcome the move, but do not want militarised law enforcement that could spark bigger clashes in the disputed waterway
  • China is the top perpetrator of illegal fishing, a sector the UN estimates is worth US$23.5 billion globally
Washington’s recent moves to double down on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing through a stronger maritime presence in Asia are welcome, analysts say, though they warn that countries in the region will not want militarised law enforcement that could spark bigger clashes in disputed waters – and not just with Beijing.

Their comments are a response to United States National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s announcement last month that the US Coast Guard would deploy its newest fast-response cutters in the Indo-Pacific to police illegal fishing by China.

Earlier this week, David Feith, deputy assistant secretary for regional and security policy and multilateral affairs at the US Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told journalists Washington would expand the number of “shiprider” agreements the US Coast Guard has with Pacific countries to help them counter China’s “aggressive behaviour” on the high seas and in sovereign waters of other nations.

US coastguard to deploy fast-response craft as counter to China’s ‘illegal fishing, harassment’ in western Pacific

Under a shiprider agreement, one country’s authorities are allowed to board law enforcement vessels or aircraft of another nation while they are on patrol, during which the former can authorise the latter to take law enforcement action on their behalf.

“In some areas, such as the Northern Pacific, stateless fishing vessels display characteristics of Chinese registration. In addition, China’s maritime militia – estimated to include more than 3,000 vessels – actively carries out aggressive behaviour on the high seas and in sovereign waters of other nations to coerce and intimidate legitimate fishers in support of the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term maritime strategic goals,” Feith said.

South Korean coast guard ships attempt to stop 12 Chinese fishing boats bound together with ropes illegally fishing in the Yellow Sea. Photo: AFP
Gilang Kembara, researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia, said Jakarta would not welcome a militaristic approach by the US to clamp down on IUU fishing.

“I think it’s a good thing if the US offers Indonesia cooperation with their coastguard, since IUU fishing is a criminal activity, so we need law enforcement to fight it,” he said. “But if what they offer is cooperation with the US Navy, and this becomes a [military] issue … that approach is overblown because I don’t think IUU fishing is an existential threat to a nation.”

Jay L. Batongbacal, director at the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte would also not welcome joint enforcement.

“But [Manila] will probably be satisfied with information sharing on activities at sea, and for at least the last two to three years the government, especially the fisheries bureau, has actually taken advantage of information available from the US on foreign fishing activities in the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” he said.


According to a 2015 report published by the European Parliament’s in-house think tank, the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) account for an estimated one-fifth of global marine fish production, and fish exports from that region were worth US$11 billion that year. By comparison, the global IUU fishing industry is estimated to be worth US$23.5 billion annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

China, which has the world’s largest distant water fishing fleet, is the top perpetrator of IUU fishing. Its vessels are most active in the South China Sea – which Beijing claims almost in its entirety – though they are also present in other parts of the world, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, a London-based advocacy group for global fishing sustainability.

The Overseas Deployment Institute think tank, also based in London, estimates that China has nearly 17,000 distant water fishing vessels, and at least 183 vessels in this fleet are suspected of involvement in IUU fishing.

Beijing has dismissed Washington’s efforts to rein in the practice as politically motivated. It maintained that it was continuing to crack down on illegal fishing activities, with foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying in September that it had “zero tolerance” for IUU fishing.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Regan during a July drill in the South China Sea. Photo: EPA

Asyura Salleh, a specialist in maritime security and governance at foreign policy research centre Pacific Forum, acknowledged that American efforts against IUU fishing would be seen as “an anti-China stance” in light of the Trump administration efforts to counter Beijing’s influence in the region.

But, she added, Washington was just addressing a real problem that had been happening for some time.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on [how the US is] going to [assist] regional countries to better understand their maritime environment,” said the Kuala Lumpur-based researcher.

Asyura predicted that this commitment would continue under the new Biden administration, although it might take “a more pragmatic approach” by helping Southeast Asian and Pacific countries improve their ability to monitor foreign fishing vessels’ activities instead of through the deployment of patrol assets.

“If there are more skirmishes similar to what we saw in the Natuna Islands earlier this year, then that would definitely call for more [action] from the US administration,” Asyura said, referring to a part of Indonesia’s EEZ at the edge of the South China Sea. Jakarta and Beijing have clashed over Chinese fishing and coastguard vessels entering the area.

It’s not just the South China Sea: Vietnamese vessels in Indonesian waters show extent of maritime disputes in Asean


Chinese vessels are not the only ones engaging in IUU activities. Vietnamese vessels had also been caught for illegal fishing in Thai and Indonesian waters, driven by depleted stocks at home and a lack of local regulations or enforcement to stamp out the practice, said Dominic Thomson, deputy director and Southeast Asia project manager at the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Thomson said initial analysis showed at least 59 Vietnamese vessels and 430 crew members were caught for illegal fishing in Thailand-administered waters as of the middle of September.

Riefqi Muna, emerging security affairs researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said data from 2014 to last year showed that of the 488 foreign vessels caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, 276 were Vietnam-owned vessels. Those ships were later scuttled by Indonesia’s maritime authorities.

He said Southeast Asia’s largest economy suffers losses of up to US$36.4 billion in maritime resources annually due to IUU fishing, which also depletes fish stocks and destroys invaluable marine life and environments.

The Indonesian coast guard detains a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Natuna Islands. Photo: AFP

Batongbacal from the University of the Philippines said it was difficult to get data on foreign vessels entering Philippine waters in recent times as President Duterte had adopted a more conciliatory approach towards China.

The most recent time the country’s fisheries bureau released such statistics was under the administration of Benigno Aquino III, prior to Duterte taking power in 2016. At that time, the data showed that Chinese vessels were the biggest IUU fishing perpetrator in Philippine waters.

“It’s still part of the overall policy of Duterte to be friendly and accommodating to China, and in 2017 he even said publicly that he was basically allowing the Chinese to fish in the EEZ, so it’s a part of that fatalistic policy,” he said. “There’s nothing he can do about it other than allowing [the Chinese] to do so without any action, and because of that statement the fisheries bureau essentially is also toeing the line.”

While IUU fishing was a transnational crime, Batongbacal cautioned that the current situation in Asean had the potential to flare up into a region-wide dispute and Asean countries should work together to tackle it.

The US is taking on Beijing over the South China Sea, but Asean remains cautious

“There is an intersection between IUU fishing and other illegal activities that I’ve seen. The Philippines, for example, has been very concerned with drug smuggling as well as the smuggling of other goods, so you’re not only talking about fish but also other activities that take place along with it,” he said.

“Even if [Southeast Asian countries] do not see a multilateral problem or issue [with IUU fishing], they will still need to address it and they will still need to deal with foreign fishers in their exclusive economic zones. So it is inevitable that at some point it does become a political or geopolitical problem.”

Asyura of the Pacific Forum said the best law-enforcement approach to illegal fishing was for countries to push vessels out of territorial waters into international waters rather than detaining fishermen, particularly amid fears of imported Covid-19 cases.

“In fact this has been the case, Malaysia has been pushing out more boats than detaining them,” she said. “I think that’s because of the current climate that we’re in, because of the pandemic, there has been a lot more enforcement quite generally around these borders.”

Additional reporting by Jitsiree Thongnoi in Bangkok

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: U.S. crackdown on illegal fishing risks roiling waters