China’s fishing industry’s impact on maritime security

The evolution of China’s fishing industry – from inshore to offshore fishing – is posing both challenges and opportunities for regional maritime security.

Facing rising demand for aquatic products and depleting fishing resources in its inshore waters, China’s fishing industry has been undertaking some major structural adjustments, which include the dramatic shift from inshore to offshore fishing. This shift is leading to Chinese fishermen’s growing fishing operations in neighboring countries EEZs and in the disputed waters, which presents both challenges and opportunities for regional maritime security.

By Zhang Hongzhou


Implications For Regional Maritime Security

When fishery resources in China’s inshore water were quickly depleted, more Chinese fishermen naturally went out to fish in their traditional fishing grounds in the country’s offshore waters where they have fished for generations. However, when UNCLOS entered into force globally in the mid-1990s and regional competition for marine resources intensified, large areas of China’s offshore waters have become either neighboring countries’ EEZs or disputed areas. Consequently, the dramatic shift from inshore to offshore fishing is leading to growing fishing operation of Chinese fishermen in waters which now belong to neighboring countries’ EEZs and disputed areas.

When the fishery dispute involving Chinese fishermen are politicized or handled by neighboring countries’ law enforcement agency in a tough and unilateral manner, escalation of violence occurs and fishery disputes become triggers for regional diplomatic and security tensions. In April 2012 fishery disputes involving Chinese fishermen who were accused of illegally fishing in the disputed area has led to several maritime standoffs between the Chinese and the Philippine vessels; in December 2011, the killing of one South Korean Coast Guard by a Chinese fishermen started a huge diplomatic backlash from South Korea against China; and in September 2010, the arrest of the captain of a Chinese trawler by Japan after a collision dramatically increased the tension between China and Japan over Diaoyu island.

While growing fishing disputes have become catalysts for maritime conflicts in the region, these challenges could be turned into opportunities for regional cooperation. The region’s fishing industry has some common enemies such as illegal fishing, overfishing, maritime piracy and degradation of marine environment. Given the nature of these threats, efforts from one single country could not succeed and bilateral and multilateral cooperation are needed to manage fishery disputes and ensure sustainability of fishing in the region. Fishery cooperation could become a very useful instrument for regional countries to build mutual trust and understanding, which is crucial for safeguarding regional maritime security.

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Article courtesy of Eurasia Review.

Zhang Hongzhou is a Senior Analyst with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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