Written by: Cooper Stewart
As China continues to cement and expand its superpower status, a growing number of people believe China is on an inevitable path toward conflict with the U.S. and other Asian nations. That conflict is already here, at least in a naval sense, as the Indonesian navy fired upon and destroyed Chinese vessels in 2019. But this vessel was not a military ship; in fact, it was actually a Chinese fishing vessel. This was not an isolated incident either. China’s fishing fleet came under intense international scrutiny in the last few years for their possible incursions into the territorial waters of other states, from East Asia to South America. While we might not consider this a war or conflict in the traditional sense, the outcome of this battle for control of the ocean’s bounty carries immense implications for global fish stocks and Chinese geopolitical ambitions.
The numbers have varied over the years, but China is often considered to have the largest fishing fleet in the world, possessing anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing vessels that bring in 15.2 million tonnes of seafood annually (20% of global total). Most important among these fishing vessels are the ships specifically designed for distant-waters fishing, which enable long-distance, high-intensive fishing. China claims to have around 2,600 of these vessels in total, but other estimates put the number as high as 17,000. The U.S.’s distant-waters fleet, for comparison, numbers under 300 vessels in total. There is strength in numbers, and, being the largest seafood exporter in the world, the Chinese fishing industry receives lucrative subsidies from the government. In the squid industry alone, their fishing fleets constitute up to 70% of the global squid catch in international waters. Given the size and the sophistication of the Chinese fishing fleet, they often travel with medical and fuel ships to extend their time out at sea, directly impacting other national fleets.
Ecologically, Chinese fishing fleets contribute heavily to the already large problem of overfishing vulnerable and endangered fish stocks. In 2017, a Chinese fishing vessel was caught illegally fishing in protected waters around the Galapagos Islands. The Ecuadorian authorities boarded the vessel and discovered 6,000 sharks, many from endangered species. In the once squid-rich waters of North Korea, where Chinese vessels began to operate in recent years, squid stocks plummeted upwards of 70%. While no one country can be entirely blamed for the current overfishing crisis affecting our ocean, the sheer size of China’s fishing fleet coupled with their use of non-environmentally friendly fishing methods make their contribution to the problem all the more greater.
Perhaps more concerning, China uses its fishing fleets to flaunt international law and to push around other countries that do not possess the capabilities to expel Chinese fleets from their waters. One of the key maritime laws that fishing vessels must adhere to is the maintenance of GPS transponders, which inform authorities on the land of a ship’s location. Chinese fishing vessels routinely turn off their transponders when fishing, creating a GPS-less cloak for large numbers. In the case of Chinese fishing in North Korean waters, the UN expressly forbids North Korean from selling fishing rights to foreign countries. Yet despite this, Chinese fishing vessels continued to covertly fish there in clear violation of the UN’s authority.
As domestic fish stocks decreased, China’s fishing fleet expanded its reach to waters off of Central and South America, as well as Western Africa where enforcement is more lax due to the governments’ inability to suppress maritime violations. One example of this phenomenon is the current situation in Ghana, where,despite laws stipulating all trawling vessels operating in Ghanaian waters to be Ghanaian owned, Chinese state fishing companies maintain shell companies that allow them to operate there without scrutiny. Local Ghanaian fishermen are unable to compete with these vessels, and, as a result, the Chinese are able to control 93% of all trawlers that operate in Ghana. The result of this market domination has severely impacted the maritime economy there, with the income of local fishermen plummeting since the beginning of the 21st century.
Beyond the matter of fishing, China’s civilian fleets have also become a tool and an expression of Chinese hard power in the international arena. Chinese coast guard vessels often tail Chinese fishing vessels in both international waters and sometimes in the waters belonging to other countries. Moreover, China used these civilian vessels in punitive measures taken against rival countries. When the Philippines began renovations on a disputed island’s infrastructure in the South China Sea, 90 Chinese fishing boats arrived and stopped several miles away from the island after the construction started. This pattern of intimidation through the use of fishing boats is central to the Chinese strategy of assertion in the South China Sea. Recently, in March of 2021, 200 Chinese fishing vessels anchored themselves at a disputed reef claimed by the Philippines. Perhaps most damning about this instance is that satellite images found that none of these vessels are doing any actual fishing, which greatly supports the argument that China’s fishing fleet is increasingly serving as an extension of the state’s interests to assert themselves in this region.
Overall, the Chinese fishing fleet is more than an economic institution in China. The fleet has become a device which the Chinese utilize to project power in their international disputes and to expand their hold on resources in developing countries that lack the ability to police their own territorial waters. Although China pledged in recent years to draw back elements of its fishing fleet from around the globe and decrease its distant water fleet, the status quo of the fishing industry in China remains largely unchanged. The biggest takeaway from this issue is that China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions cannot be separated from one another. Businesses and entire industries in China remain subservient to the CCP, which means the government may utilize them as an instrument of both soft and hard power to achieve China’s global ambitions. Time will only tell to what extent China’s fishing fleets will play a role in China’s international disputes, especially the South China Sea.