A rash of China's scrapes with neighbouring nations over illegal fishing is sharpening concerns about its intentions in the South China Sea. Its maritime claims were seen as attempts to build a buffer zone around its southern flank and to control access to the Pacific Ocean. Now it's also looking like a matter closer to the gut - the free access of its fishermen to exclusive economic zones of others, facilitated by stout protection delivered by China's coast guard. That's poaching, pure and simple, which no major power should be accessory to, much less cover up with claims that turn someone else's economic zone into its "traditional fishing grounds". In the past weeks, first Indonesia, then Malaysia and Vietnam, have come out to protest. This turbulence raises the risks of accidental conflict, given the unresolved tensions that roil South-east Asia. With its overtones of nationalism, livelihood matters and food security, the danger of escalation should not be underestimated.
In a global fishing trade estimated at US$130 billion (S$175 billion), the top three fish-producing nations are all Asian - China, India and Vietnam. This is a pointer to the frenetic activity in Asian waters. Secondly, this is not only about China versus others but also, frequently, a matter between other Asian states as well. For instance, Indian fishermen are regularly caught straying into Sri Lankan waters, where locals now are robustly active after being denied use of the sea during the civil war years. Of the 153 fishing vessels caught by Indonesia since 2014, most were from Vietnam.
Matters are likely to only get worse. Asia's appetite for fish is growing, driven by rising incomes and health concerns that cause people to use less meat and choose leaner fare such as chicken and fish. Meanwhile, depletion of fish stocks proceeds at an alarming pace, leading fishermen to look farther afield- Chinese trawlers have been caught as far away as in Argentine waters. The South China Sea is one area where the depletion is most rapid. In the Philippines, 10 of the 13 fishing grounds are overfished. This sets the scene for more frequent clashes over fishery rights at a time when maritime disputes are getting bitter.
Solutions, even if they stare one in the face, are not going to be easy. Apart from sustainable fishing and modern fish farming - though not all fish can be effectively farmed - countries should husband their own natural resources. It is important for China, as the biggest farming nation and one with the most advanced technology, to sit down with Asean to discuss cooperation in the regional fishery trade. A mechanism is needed for resolution of natural resource conflicts. Without it, maritime militias patrolling the waters could spark incidents. Meantime, it is imperative for every nation, Asean states included, to scrupulously respect the exclusive economic zones of others. The waters are troubled enough as they are.