Fish­er­men on the front lines

Chi­nese crews help ex­pand na­tion’s ter­ri­to­rial claims

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - WORLD -

In­done­sian of­fi­cials boarded a Chi­nese fish­ing ves­sel close to In­done­sia’s Natuna Is­lands. As an In­done­sian ves­sel be­gan tow­ing the boat to shore, a Chi­nese coast guard ship in­ter­vened to ram the fish­ing boat, push­ing it back into the South China Sea — un­til the In­done­sians re­leased the tow line.

In­done­sia sets great store on its friendly re­la­tions with China, but its govern­ment re­sponded an­grily, say­ing it felt its ef­forts to main­tain peace in the dis­puted wa­ters had been “sab­o­taged.” De­fence of­fi­cials vowed to send big­ger naval ves­sels to de­fend its pa­trol boats in the re­gion, to con­sider in­tro­duc­ing mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion to re­mote is­lands in the ar­chi­pel­ago and even to de­ploy U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to the Natu­nas to ward off “thieves.”

China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, draw­ing a “nine-dash line” around its claims that passes close to the shores of the Philip­pines, Malaysia, Brunei, Viet­nam — and the Natu­nas.

The fish­ing ves­sel, Bei­jing’s For­eign Min­istry said, was op­er­at­ing in China’s “tra­di­tional fish­ing grounds,” though the in­ci­dent oc­curred just a few kilo­me­tres from the Natu­nas and about 1,665 kilo­me­tres from Hainan.

China’s claim to the South China Sea is based partly on the idea its fish­er­men have worked there for cen­turies. But China is also try­ing to cre­ate facts on the ground by ex­pand­ing its fish­ing in­dus­try’s zone of oper­a­tions, ex­perts say.

Af­ter the fish­ing boats clear the way, the coast guard is next, of­ten fol­lowed by land recla­ma­tion on rocks and reefs and fi­nally mil­i­ta­riza­tion and con­trol, said Alan Dupont, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity at the Univer­sity of New South Wales in Syd­ney.

“I call the strat­egy ‘fish, pro­tect, oc­cupy and con­trol,’” he said.

China blames the United States for mil­i­ta­riz­ing the South China Sea, cit­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s strate­gic re­bal­ance to Asia, a re­cent deal to post U.S. con­ven­tional forces on five mil­i­tary bases in the Philip­pines for the first time in decades and on­go­ing mil­i­tary ex­er­cises be­tween the two coun­tries.

But China, Dupont said, is pur­su­ing its own strate­gic plan to dom­i­nate the Western Pa­cific and push the U.S. out, try­ing to take ad­van­tage of an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion it be­lieves to be dis­tracted by other global crises. But Bei­jing’s “op­por­tunist” pol­icy is al­ready back­fir­ing, he said, unit­ing many coun­tries in the re­gion against China.

But it is not just about na­tion­al­ism. Eco­nom­ics is a ma­jor driv­ing force for the ex­pan­sion, Zhang and Dupont say — to sat­isfy China’s ev­er­grow­ing ap­petite for fish and its prof­itable and rapidly ex­pand­ing fish-ex­port in­dus­try, al­ready the world’s largest.

China’s per capita fish con­sump­tion was es­ti­mated by the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion at roughly 36 kilo­grams in 2010, nearly dou­ble the global av­er­age, and is grow­ing by roughly eight per cent a year. The fish in­dus­try em­ploys nearly 15 mil­lion peo­ple.

Com­pared with in­shore wa­ters, the Spratlys are much richer grounds, fish­er­men say, with valu­able gi­ant clams and lob­sters to be har­vested — although com­pe­ti­tion is grow­ing as more boats ar­rive.

The govern­ment is also push­ing the fish­er­men far­ther from shore. It pro­vides fuel sub­si­dies, with higher rates for big­ger boats and jour­neys to the Spratlys. The Hainan govern­ment heav­ily sub­si­dizes the con­struc­tion of larger, steel-hulled trawlers, and an ex­pen­sive satel­lite sys­tem was pro­vided vir­tu­ally free of charge to about 50,000 ves­sels.

With it, Chi­nese fish­ing crews can send emer­gency sig­nals to coast guard ships with their ex­act lo­ca­tion if they run into trou­ble.

Fish­er­men said the govern­ment of­ten or­ga­nizes trips to the Spratlys, with coast guard ves­sels in at­ten­dance, es­pe­cially when ten­sions are high.

“When our country needs us, we will go with­out a sec­ond thought to de­fend our rights,” Chen said.

Rodger Baker, the lead Asia-Pa­cific an­a­lyst for the global in­tel­li­gence firm Strat­for, said th­ese mar­itime “rights pro­tec­tion” voy­ages are China’s

PHOTOS BY ADAM DEAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Fish caught near Hainan Is­land in the South China Sea are off-loaded in the har­bour at Tanmen.

Har­bour work­ers sort fish. Ex­perts say the bat­tle for fish­eries re­sources, an of­ten- over­looked desta­bi­liz­ing in­flu­ence in the South China Sea, is a source of un­pre­dictabil­ity, volatil­ity and risk.

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