Could China's Fishing Boats Start a War on the High Seas?

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Above: Fishing boats depart Shenjiawan port in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province. Stringer China/REUTERS

By Christopher Woody, Business Insider

  • Chinese fishing vessels are trawling the world's oceans to feed their country's appetite for seafood.
  • That has brought those vessels into conflict with foreign coast guards and navies.
  • In South America, it's further straining countries' resources and fisheries, according to a report by a US military website.

China's "insatiable appetite" for seafood is straining the limited abilities of South American countries to enforce their maritime boundaries, according to a December 13 article in Dialogo, a website run by US Southern Command.

Countries on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have been affected, and most of the illicit fishing activity in those areas is done by Chinese vessels.

Juan Carlos Sueiro, fisheries director for Peru at the ocean conservation and advocacy organization Oceana, told Dialogo that Peru and Argentina saw "the largest congregation of these vessels in the world."

An Argentine soldier fires at a Chinese fishing boat in Argentine waters. (Argentine Coast Guard via AP)

"It's not that they can't fish in international waters, but their close presence generates controversy. For example, Oceana already identified vessels entering into Peruvian waters without a license or with duplicated ID," Sueiro said.

"Refrigerated fishing vessels can be found in international waters to transfer their captures, fuel, and supplies," he said, adding that transshipment activity, which can launder profits from illegal fishing, had also been detected.

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Officials and experts have said rising demand for fish and increased competition over dwindling stocks could spark new conflicts. Many of them have pointed specifically to China.

Fishing stocks around China have shrunken dramatically. But Beijing has expanded its distant-ocean fishing fleet, and those vessels have been involved in disputes as far afield as Argentina — where the coast guard has fired at and sunk them — and in Africa, where Chinese firms are building fish-processing facilities.

A Chinese fishing boat after the South Korean coast guard fired a flash-bang grenade at it. (South Korean Mokpo Coast Guard via AP)

In a September 2017 article, retired US Navy Adm. James Stavridis and a coauthor said that Beijing was spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to subsidize its long-range fishing fleet and that its coast guard often escorts those ships while they fish illegally.

"As such, the Chinese government is directly enabling and militarizing the worldwide robbing of ocean resources," they said.

In September 2018, US Coast Guard Cmdr. Kate Higgins-Bloom wrote that "the odds that a squabble over fishing rights could turn into a major armed conflict are rising."

Countries overplaying their hands with fishing and fisheries enforcement in contested waters and increasingly aggressive responses to illegal fishing are two ways that conflict could develop, Higgins-Bloom wrote. She added that "political leaders of rising powers will feel enormous pressure to secure the resources their citizens demand — even if it means violating international norms and rules."

Indonesia has blown up boats caught fishing illegally, including a Chinese vessel, and the country's fisheries minister has said what Chinese fishing boats "are doing is not fishing. It is transnational organized crime."

"There's no need to worry [about conflicts with other nations] as we have government vessels protecting us," a Chinese fisherman said in September 2017, after the expiration of a fishing ban in the South China Sea.

Chinese icebreaker Xue Long conducts operations at an ice-flow camp in the Arctic.Wikimedia Commons

The Arctic, where retreating ice has increased interest in commercial shipping and resource extraction, could also become a venue for that competition.

"I think the Chinese are very interested in the potential protein sources, the fishing stocks," in the Arctic, Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider in late 2018.

Read more*:* The Coast Guard turned down a request for an Arctic exercise out of concern the US's only heavy icebreaker would break down and Russia would have to rescue it

Nine countries, including China, and the EU signed an agreement in late 2017 prohibiting commercial fishing in the central Arctic for 16 years to allow study of the region — a deal meant to ensure there's sufficient information to fish manageably "when these decisions have to be reached," Conley said.

"We're seeing anecdotal evidence of fishing stocks traveling north to get to cooler waters," Conley added. "China certainly wants to ensure that ... they're not excluded from" those fishing grounds.

'Confronting the Chinese voracity'

The Indonesian navy blows up foreign fishing boats off Batam Island, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Kanwa)

US Coast Guard officials have said they are on good terms with their Chinese counterparts when it comes to fisheries enforcement, though they are paying attention to what's going on in the northern Pacific Ocean.

Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told Business Insider in October that the Coast Guard has "a good, functional working relationship" with China, describing an incident when the two services cooperated to stop a high-seas drift-netter, which uses massive nets to scoop up fish without regard to limits on what species can be caught.

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"We identified that ship and responded with a Coast Guard cutter. It was a few hundred miles off the nearest mainland in that part of the world. The Chinese came out. It was a Chinese flagship, very cooperative," Schultz said. "We had a Chinese ship-rider on our Coast Guard ship. We turned that ship over to the Chinese for prosecution."

In South America, however, "the fight is not easy," even with cooperation among countries in the region, Dialogo cautioned in the December 13 article.

"China clearly intends to exploit regional seas, and many species already suffer the consequences," the article adds. "Confronting the Chinese voracity for marine resources requires a regional commitment that can't wait."

SEE ALSO: The Coast Guard is catching record amounts of cocaine, and activity is growing around a smuggling hotspot

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