International relations, Law, National security, Food & water, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

24 June 2022

Every year, China invokes sustainability to unilaterally impose a ban on fishing in the contested waters of the South China Sea – but it’s not all about the fish, Mahbi Maulaya writes.

In effect from 1 May to 16 August, China unilaterally began its annual summer fishing ban for important seas in East and Southeast Asia last month. The ban makes it illegal for vessels from any country to catch fish in the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the waters north of 12 degrees latitude in the South China Sea (SCS), and is enforced by the Chinese Coast Guard.

China has applied the ban since 1999. As the state-run People’s Daily explained, China considers the ban “part of the country’s efforts to promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology.”

But is China’s fishing ban policy solely based on concern for the marine environment? Or is it just a strategy to allow China to wedge its adversaries and project its claimed sovereignty over the area?

The problem of marine fishery sustainability is indeed a longstanding and unresolved issue, particularly in the SCS. Fishery resources are essential to the 190 million people residing in the coastal areas of the SCS, over 77 per cent of whom depend on pelagic fishery resources for their daily protein intake or family income.

This high demand requires a strong supply. Annual catch production in the SCS accounts for over 12 per cent of all fish caught in the world, resulting in overfishing in the SCS.

Since the 1980s, the fishery stocks in the SCS have been decreasing rapidly. As of 2008, SCS fishery reserves have collapsed. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has been a major cause of this overfishing and has contributed to the deterioration of the marine environment.

More on this: Fisheries diplomacy and the South China Sea

Scientists also found that rising sea temperatures as a consequence of global warming will be a supporting factor for the decreasing fish stocks in the SCS.

In this context, the original application of the fishing ban was likely intended to genuinely contribute to solving this very real problem.

However, environmental and political concerns are not mutually exclusive – China can use environmental policy as a tool to project power in the contested SCS.

In recent years, China has strengthened its ability to supervise fishing in the area, in particular by giving its coastguard legal license to fire on and tow foreign vessels.

In 2018, control of the coastguard was moved from the State Council to the Central Military Commission, and several combat capable ships previously assigned to the Chinese Navy have recently come under its jurisdiction. These moves have given it an ‘unequivocally military character’ that ‘facilitates unilateralism and aggression in disputed waters.’

Virtually every year as the ban begins, strong protests emerge from other claimants of the sea, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.

More on this: Saving the South China Sea fishery

This year, Vietnam condemned the fishing ban by describing it as ‘a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction’ under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Philippines took a similar line, saying that it was ‘over areas that extend far beyond China’s legitimate maritime entitlements’, and noted its continued opposition to the annual moratorium.

However, these protests may be fruitless. China’s fishing ban is a strategy that is difficult to counter.

China’s invocation of concern for the environment combined with a more militarised coastguard makes it very difficult to prevent it projecting its power in the South China Sea during the moratorium.

China has put itself in a win-win scenario, no matter how other claimants react.

If Vietnam and the Philippines oppose China’s fishing ban, China can construct an image of two countries that do not care about the sustainable fishing in the SCS, arguing that they put their national interests above environmental sustainability.

But if Vietnam and the Philippines accept China’s unilateral policy not to fish in the SCS during the May-August period, they are implicitly recognising China’s right to enforce that ban in waters they claim, essentially conceding sovereignty over the sea.

It is worth considering that China’s choice to do this unilaterally may have prevented other countries from joining sustainable fishing efforts because they fear their acquiescence could be interpreted as recognition of China’s claims to the area, and caused unnecessary clashes that could escalate dangerously.

Policymakers should learn from this and keep an eye out in the rest of the region and the world for governments that may look to use environmental issues as a political instrument.

The Philippines and Vietnam are stuck between a rock and a hard place – revealing that China’s ban is not all about fishing after all, but a deliberate attempt to wedge its adversaries. Considering China’s choice to do so unilaterally and its harsh enforcement, it is clear the fishing ban, while serving some fish-related purposes, is also a strategy implemented by China for projecting its maritime power in the South China Sea.

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