Fishermen on the front lines
Chinese crews help expand nation’s territorial claims
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
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.