The Fishing Battle on the Front Line of Beijing's Ambitions

The Fishing Battle on the Front Line of Beijing's Ambitions

Workers in Danang, Vietnam, unload fish caught in the South China Sea from the boat of captain Nguyen Cho.

SourceLinh Pham/Getty

Why you should care

Vietnam’s fishermen are increasingly brushing up against aggressive Chinese boats in a patch of sea where both lay claim.

When boat QNG 90675 limped into the Vietnamese port at Quang Ngai on Dec. 12, it showed signs of a confrontation at sea with a Chinese coast guard ship. According to local officials, the coast guard boarded the boat, forced the crew of seven to stand with their hands behind their heads, and confiscated their catch and fishing gear, before cutting the boat’s nets and casting them into the sea.

The boat had been fishing in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, as Vietnamese fishermen have for centuries, inside what Hanoi claims as the country’s exclusive economic zone in what it calls the East Sea. With coastal areas of Vietnam overfished, the fishing grounds around the islands abound in species such as tuna and flying fish.

But the Paracels also lie inside China’s self-declared maritime boundary— the “nine-dash line”— the swath of the sea within which Beijing claims exclusive rights. It does not hesitate to demonstrate this against Vietnam’s fishermen, sometimes in crude terms.

In areas near the Paracels and Spratlys, Vietnamese fishing boats are often obstructed, harassed and threatened by Chinese ships.

Pham Anh Tuan, vice president, Vietnam Fisheries Society

The manager of the fleet that includes QNG 90675 says the Chinese vessel accosted the boat and officers jumped on board, saying they were fishing in Chinese waters. “The area where we fish is Vietnamese water,” says Duong Van Rin, who manages 20 boats. “We aren’t violating any country’s waters.”

Vietnamese industry officials and fishermen say confrontations between Chinese coast guard or civilian boats — referred to by state media in Hanoi as “alien vessels” — and Vietnamese craft are frequent, and have in several cases seen boats sunk, fishermen injured and equipment or catches stolen.

The fights over fishing represent a little-reported economic and environmental facet of the clash between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in one of the world’s hottest geopolitical trouble spots, as well as a potential source of a broader U.S.-China conflict. Fishermen, as academic Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote in a research paper this month, “serve on the front lines of this contest” as they fight for their livelihoods against bigger, better-equipped Chinese coast guard and fishing boats.

Beijing has been dredging reefs and building bases and artificial islands to demonstrate its military dominance in the area, and has in effect vetoed oil and gas development in the sea by Vietnam, including two projects with Spain’s Repsol — and its other neighbors.

At the same time Chinese, Vietnamese and other fishing fleets are competing over diminishing fish stocks, whose depletion analysts blame in part on China’s dredging and construction in the sea. Vietnamese fishermen, as they compete with the better-equipped vessels of China’s coast guard and fishing fleet, risk getting involved in incidents that could spark bigger conflicts.

“As they race to pull the last fish from the South China Sea, [fishermen] stand at least as much chance of triggering a violent clash as do the region’s armed forces,” Poling wrote. The study, published by the CSIS, used satellite imagery and other technology to track fishing boats, and revealed that overall activity is increasing year-over-year, and concluded that a part of the Chinese fleet was engaged in what it called “paramilitary” work rather than commercial fishing.

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Vietnam says the clashes threaten a core resource on which at least 1.4 million of its 96 million population depend for their livelihoods. The South China Sea accounts for about 12 percent of the world’s fishing stocks, according to one 2015 estimate. But Vietnam’s wooden fishing boats, working the country’s more than 3,200 kilometers of coastline, are little match for China’s steel-hulled fleet — an apt metaphor for Beijing’s rising might in relation to its militarily and economically weaker neighbors.

“In remote waters, especially in areas near the Paracels and Spratlys, Vietnamese fishing boats are often obstructed, harassed and threatened by Chinese ships,” says Pham Anh Tuan, vice president of the Vietnam Fisheries Society (Vinafis), in an email reply to questions. “Vietnamese fishermen fish for their livelihood and to affirm the sovereignty of Vietnam.”

The country is already increasing its military spending, especially on its navy, in tandem with its fast-growing economy and in response to perceived threats, including from China.

When asked about the clashes, the Chinese government says its coast guard carries out “normal patrolling duties in the relevant waters under China’s jurisdiction,” and that in “individual cases” it sometimes takes action against foreign fishing ships.

“Everyone understands that it is quite normal to have some fishery disputes from time to time between neighboring coastal countries,” a Chinese government spokesman says. He advises people to “focus more on the sound fishery cooperation between China and Vietnam,” including mutual aid the two countries provide each other in emergencies, rather than what he calls “sporadic fishery disputes.”

Tensions between China and its neighbors about fishing are not limited to Vietnam. Boats from the Philippines have also reported being harassed by Chinese coast guard vessels, including rammings and firing of water cannon and warning shots.

According to Jay Batongbacal, a South China Sea specialist at the University of the Philippines College of Law, fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef, “had to endure the Chinese coast guard taking part of their catch” until the practice was filmed by a local TV crew last year.

Manila won a 2016 United Nations tribunal case against China over its claims on the South China Sea. But since Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, took power, he has sought closer economic and political ties with Beijing. Three years ago the Indonesian navy captured Chinese boats in the Natuna Sea, inside what it claims as its maritime economic zone. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry justified the boats’ presence by calling the waters China’s “traditional fishing grounds” — a view disputed by Jakarta.

For Vietnam and China the fight over fishing rights represents something bigger. It provides a volatile subtext to their often tense relations, with visceral anti-Chinese sentiment running deep in a country that won a border war against its larger neighbor in 1979.

Vietnam’s communist leadership has a strong relationship with Beijing, a leading trading partner, even as it builds closer ties with the U.S., Russia and other countries. Yet Hanoi is also one of the most strident voices in Southeast Asia that speaks out against China’s unilateral actions in the sea.

Hanoi does, however, choose its words carefully, in part due to the widespread Sinophobia in the country. Anti-China protests have broken out several times in recent years, catching Hanoi off guard and representing an unpredictable element for a government that is in most respects firmly in control.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry voiced concern over the clashes at sea, saying in a statement that it had “legal grounds and historical evidence” for its claims of sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys.

“Vietnam is strongly opposed to heavy-handed measures and harsh treatment by other countries against Vietnamese fishermen, such as the chasing and ramming of fishing vessels and the confiscation of fishing equipment, with a view to, inter alia, advancing their illegal maritime claims in the East Sea,” the ministry said, without referring directly to China.

It added that “Vietnam has lodged its diplomatic protests, requesting relevant countries to take appropriate actions and make adequate compensation.”

The clashes at sea have become so serious that Vietnamese state-controlled media — which often censor politically sensitive content — reported on at least two incidents last year, in August and October, cases where fishing boats were rammed and either sunk or badly damaged by “alien ships.”

“It’s very difficult for fishermen and their families, for whom a fishing boat is their only way of making money,” says Nguyen Chu Hoi, an associate professor at Hanoi’s Vietnam National University. “When the ships are rammed and sunk, the fishermen can’t recover.”

According to Vinafish, the country’s fishing industry employs 432,000 people directly and another 1 million in processing, boatbuilding and related industries, bringing in exports of $1.7 billion a year and contributing nearly 3 percent to Vietnam’s gross domestic product.

Hoi describes the dispute as a “silent fishing war.” Among the worst affected are the communities in the central city of Danang and beyond it to the south, he adds, and the provinces facing the Paracel and Spratly Islands “are the most vulnerable of all.”

Among them is Quang Ngai, where the clash involving QNG 90675 took place. Far from Vietnam’s industrial hubs around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the province has 30,000 fishermen and is dependent on the industry. At the local fishing association, a banner in red and yellow, the colors of the Vietnamese flag, reads “The silver sea belongs to the people,” a quote from the country’s revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

Inside, however, Phan Huy Hoang tells a different story. Hoang, the association’s head, estimates that Chinese boats ram Vietnamese ones or confiscate their equipment “about 30 times a year.” He says most of the clashes involve surveillance or coast guard vessels and result in the sinking of Vietnamese boats five or six times a year. “When they crash into wooden boats, it’s not safe,” Hoang says. “All the Chinese boats are steel-hulled.”

Since 1999 China has used its coast guard and fleet to impose a summer fishing ban in the South China Sea. It says it does so to protect stocks, and in recent years has reduced the number and size of its own boats that fish in the area. But Vietnamese fishing organizations see it as a violation of their economic rights and have protested and in some cases tried to defy it.

Worryingly for Hanoi, the fight with China over offshore fishing grounds is beginning to indirectly impact its trading relations with the European Union, with which it recently signed a free trade agreement.

According to analysts and officials, the clashes with China are driving more Vietnamese boats into the fishing grounds of the Indian Ocean and South Pacific — in some cases thousands of kilometers from their own territorial waters — and directly into confrontation with the EU, which uses its clout as a leading importer of seafood to enforce sustainable fishing practices.

The European Commission last year handed the country a “yellow card” warning for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. If Brussels were to upgrade it to a “red card,” when the decision is reviewed this year, more than $1 billion of Vietnamese seafood exports to the bloc would be at risk.

“Vietnamese fishermen are under tremendous pressure from the lack of resource, and have to go to foreign areas to fish,” Hoi says. “But because of the yellow card, they can’t.”

In a bid to avoid punitive EU measures, Vietnam last year passed a law to bring its fishing industry up to international environmental standards. Officials say they have stepped up monitoring of boats, issuing fines for infractions.

Hanoi is also helping fishermen upgrade their boats to make them more secure. “The government wants to help fishermen to stick to their traditional fishing grounds in the Paracels,” says Rin, the shipowner. “They also want fishermen to be safe, not just from the weather but from Chinese boats as well.”

Additional reporting by Nguyen Khac Giang in Hanoi and Lucy Hornby and Archie Zhang in Beijing

Hanoi is used to handling anti-China protests

Vietnam’s communist rulers are proud of the sweet spot their country is currently in. Gross domestic product grew by more than 7 percent last year, one of the fastest rates in Asia. And despite the U.S.-China trade war, which is having an impact in the region, foreign direct investment still reached a record $19 billion. Unlike some of its regional neighbors like Thailand, the country is politically stable, thanks in large part to the heavy hand the government takes in suppressing dissent.

But while mass demonstrations are rare, there is one issue that unites Vietnamese, and brings them out on to the streets in numbers: antipathy toward China. In 2014, when China stationed an oil rig in waters off Vietnam in the South China Sea, violent protests broke out around the country in which crowds rioted, vandalized factories and attacked police, leaving several people dead. One of the targets of popular wrath was a steel mill in central Vietnam belonging to Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics, which protesters set alight. Two years later, Formosa apologized for spilling toxic waste that polluted more than 200 kilometers of coastline, causing dead fish to wash up in four provinces along the coast. The incident provoked further protests.

Anti-China sentiment was again the trigger for protests across the country last June. Demonstrators rallied around a planned bill on special economic zones that some feared would favor Chinese investors. The government has withdrawn the bill for consultation.

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By John Reed

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