China's marine fishery push and maritime disputes

Indonesia's unhappiness over a Chinese vessel caught fishing illegally in the Natuna Sea is but the latest such incident. Last Wednesday, Argentina's coast guard fired on and sank a Chinese fishing boat.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of fishing incidents involving Chinese fishermen not only in disputed waters in the South China Sea and East China Sea, but also in other countries' exclusive economic zones and high seas.

An exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, is a sea zone over which a state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, as prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

What lies behind these incidents are structural shifts in China's marine fishery sector: from inshore to offshore fishing and the expansion of distant water fishing (DWF). In 1985, there were only a dozen small vessels regularly fishing in waters near the Spratly Islands, but by 2013, there were over 700. Similarly, China's DWF fleet expanded from 13 ships in 1985 to 2,460 in 2014.

These changes are due in part to China's failed efforts to control marine fishery in its own waters.

By the late 1990s, overfishing, land reclamation and pollution had led to severe depletion of fishery resources in China's traditional fishing grounds. Hence, China made the restoration of marine fishery resources and sustainable marine fishery a top priority.

It is very likely that the outward expansion of China's marine fishery sector will continue. This means that at the regional level, fishery disputes between China and regional countries are expected to intensify and on a global scale, expansion of China's distant water fishing will further pressure the world's fishery resources.

Apart from fishing moratoriums, China introduced a zero growth policy for marine fishery in 1999, which became a negative growth policy in 2000. In 2003, China formally started the Fishermen Transfer and Fishery Transition Programme to reduce marine fishery capability.

Unfortunately, given the sheer size of China's marine fishery sector, there was a gap between fishery laws and their implementation. The fact that the country's efforts to control marine fishery are concentrated in coastal and inshore waters has also led to Chinese fishermen venturing further out to sea. This outward expansion has also been directly and indirectly supported by local governments, which are interested in local gross domestic product growth and employment.

Furthermore, the fishing fuel subsidy, which was introduced together with the grain subsidy for farmers in 2006, further undermined the effectiveness of China's marine fishery control policies. From 2004 to 2014, while the total number of marine fishing vessels dropped by 10 per cent, the average gross tonnage and horsepower increased by 50 per cent and 30 per cent respectively.

Consequently, fishermen with bigger and better vessels, facing depleting fishery resources and strict restrictions in inshore waters, naturally expanded their operations outward, to the disputed waters in the South China Sea and the East China Sea or even other countries' EEZs and high seas.

China also regards marine fishery as a strategic sector and this is reflected in the country's Five-Year Plans. The 10th and 11th Five-Year Plans listed reduction of catch output as a mandatory target but the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) on fishery development lifted the cap on the marine fishery output.

In September 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture submitted a report titled Advice On Enhancing Marine Fishery As A Strategic Industry to the State Council. Then, at the 18th Party Congress, then leader Hu Jintao pledged that China would become a maritime power, and a stronger marine fishery is regarded as critical to making China a maritime power.

In February 2013, China's State Council published the first state-level marine fishery development document, which outlined the basic principles, missions and specific policy support for the marine fishery sector.

The shift in the central government's attitude towards the marine fishery sector is mainly attributed to concerns over food security and other strategic considerations.

On the one hand, facing mounting challenges to safeguard national food security, China is embracing the notion of "marine-based food security". In June 2013, Vice-Premier Wang Yang highlighted that as China is facing severe scarcity of land and water resources, developing a modern fishing industry will boost the supply of fishery products and meet the rising demand for high-quality animal protein, contributing to the country's food security. On the other hand, since 2009, with rising tensions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the expansion of China's presence overseas and the growing interest in global marine governance, China has begun to emphasise the strategic role of the marine fishery sector.

One aspect is that developing offshore marine fishery, particularly fishery in the South China Sea, will help protect China's maritime interests and assert its territorial claims in disputed waters. The other aspect is that China believes that strength in distant water fishing can safeguard China's ocean interests, expand international space for development, enhance China's international status and influence, and solidify its cooperation with foreign countries.

Therefore, it is clear that since 2010, particularly after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, there has been a convergence of interests among all key players, including the central government, fishermen, local governments and industrial interest groups, to expand China's marine fishery sector.

Looking into the future, it is very likely that the outward expansion of China's marine fishery sector will continue. This means that, at the regional level, fishery disputes between China and regional countries are expected to intensify, and, on a global scale, expansion of China's distant water fishing will further pressure the world's fishery resources.

  • The writer is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'China's marine fishery push and maritime disputes'. Print Edition | Subscribe