"Soft approaches may bring better results than the highly inflammatory, politically problematic focus on territorial disputes and EEZ entitlements."
There is no question that a Chinese fishing fleet — a 200-boat flotilla is how some quarters have described it — has been anchored for weeks in the Whitsun Reef/Julian Felipe Reef well within disputed waters in an area commonly known as the Spratlys. There is also no question that upon receipt of official AFP confirmation about the fleet’s presence, the Department of Foreign Affairs immediately filed a diplomatic protest on the presence of this fleet within our EEZ which is violative of the governing UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
There is also no question that from the very first day that photos of this anchored fleet went viral, a chorus of NGOs, advocacy groups and anti-Duterte personalities have been haranguing the administration to stop this “invasion” and get the fishing fleet off our “territory.” So, as if to show that the administration was not useless and giving in to Chinese incursions, we went on the offensive with no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana quoted as having said that the reef area is “RP territory well within our exclusive economic zone where Filipinos have the sole right to its resources in accord with international law and the 2016 arbitral ruling.”
As things now stand, a good part of that fleet remains in the area but the exchange has somehow died down in yet another episode in the continuing acrimonious debate over reefs and other features in the South China/West Philippine Sea.
It will probably take time, maybe never, for this matter to be resolved in the manner we or at least those insisting on the use of the 2016 arbitral ruling and/or UNCLOS rules prefer: Declare the disputed areas as our territory for which we dedicate resources and even lives to guard it to the last Filipino defender. In the meantime, instead of fighting among ourselves trying to make a big issue out of our so-called inability to protect our resources and in the process invite conflict among the Big Powers in our part of the world, it may be wiser to take stock of the realities on the ground and strive to find common cause with the world community in observing the basic tenets of maritime life. This includes responsible exploitation of the resources of the seas, freedom of navigation, non-incursion in territorial and inland bodies of waters and peaceful and proper resolution of disputes, if any.
For one, these boats are part of China’s ever-growing fishing fleet now considered the world’s largest. They bring millions of tons of seafood a year to feed China’s growing appetite for such bounties. They have become such a presence in the oceans using banned equipment and threatening ecosystems such as that in the disputed waters of the South China/West Philippine Sea and even around the Galapagos Islands in South America. Their crews have also established island settlements in these disputed waters, to the chagrin of claimant countries.
There is no doubt they have become a key cog in Beijing’s longtime ambition to become a maritime superpower as they have successfully established a global network of alliances with local companies in building ports and other facilities for their fishing expeditions. That they have also breached international conventions and local laws has increasingly become a cause of international concern particularly their exploits in the “gray zones” of the oceans such as those in the South China and/or West Philippine Sea and the Sea of Japan, among others.
An article on China’s growing fishing fleet in the April 22 issue of the Wall Street Journal should give everybody a pause. Expert analysis of available transponder and global registration data show that Chinese boats involved in distant water operations —meaning outside a country’s own territorial waters—total as many as 17,000 which is about seven times more than those of Taiwan and South Korea, considered having the second and third biggest fleets, with only 2500 vessels combined.
Of course, China has denied it has such a huge fleet, noting that the legally registered Chinese vessels doing distant water fishing stood at only 2700 as of 2019, advising that as early as 2017 it has capped the total to 3,000 in response to World Trade Organization efforts to cut government subsidies that contribute to overfishing. The Chinese foreign ministry has also been quoted as saying it has the strictest oversight on distant water fishing and has toughened legal penalties even more against errant fishing activities.
These claims sometimes do not tally with the facts as our, Vietnam and even Japan’s experience with the aggressive ways by which these fishing fleets operate in recent years has shown. Even Indonesia has periodically seized and even blown up seized Chinese trawlers in hopes to deter others from poaching in its waters. Last year, Ecuador and Peru placed their navies on alert to track hundreds of Chinese trawlers massing near South American fisheries. In Ghana, fisherfolks have complained about Chinese trawlers with their modern sonar and destructive equipment have been venturing into the country’s sovereign waters disrupting livelihoods and communities in the process.
Global watchdogs have reported that from 2010 to 2019, Chinese-flagged or owned vessels accounted for 21 percent of global fishing offenses up from 16 percent the previous decade. The Geneva-based Global Initiative has placed China first in the prevalence of illegal fishing by nations in 2019. These offenses are bound to continue in the years ahead as China grows its distant fishing industry as part of its national development plans. Under this plan which considers the industry “important for ensuring food security ..and in safeguarding national maritime rights and interests,” China aims to develop 29 distant fishing bases including one in Mauritania, its largest distant fishing base, a fishing port in Pakistan while its fishing companies have entered into joint ventures with local fishing groups in Peru and Ecuador and even in the Pacific Island group of nations. We note that China is now the world’s largest seafood consumer and the third largest seafood importer after Europe and the US with imports totalling $15 billion in 2019.
Given these facts and developments, the need for a comprehensive worldwide agreement on distant water fishing becomes imperative. While a number of conventions including UNCLOS has been in force for some time, what really matters is the enforcement of these agreements. What are we to do with private fishing fleets like China’s which, more often than not, are escorted and protected by that country’s Coast Guard and Navy? Is it possible for all aggrieved parties such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines in ASEAN, Ecuador and Peru in South America, Ghana and Sierra Leone in Africa, all of whose have been victims to aggressive incursions by Chinese fishing fleets to get the Chinese government not only to impose heavier penalties on those wrongdoers intruding in domestic waters but closer to home, withhold financing and other assistance on those using illegal fishing equipment and facilities for their activities?
It may also be timely for these countries to seek the assistance of UN bodies and the Coast Guard of other nations to assist them in patrolling the fishing grounds, including the gray zones which have become targets of illegal fishing activities of late. The presence of such “white flotilla” of coast guard vessels and auxiliaries patrolling the seas, as it were, can go a long way in deterring many of these incursions and fishing expeditions by swarms of huge and heavily equipped Chinese fishing vessels which contribute to territorial disputes and diplomatic tensions. Such “soft” approaches may bring better results than the highly inflammatory, politically problematic focus on territorial disputes and EEZ entitlements.
After all, it may be too late in the day for the Chinese to now downsize their fishing fleets to satisfy the provocative calls for more active push backs by those aggrieved by their actions. Getting them to abide by verifiable rules and soft approaches may make them stay within limits.