Foreign Policy Blogs

Fish Wars?

  FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016 file photo, Japan Coast Guard security team members display tracking and capture drills by rigid-hulled inflatable boats against an unidentified ship at sea in Yokohama near Tokyo during an inspection tour by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte proposed joint military exercises with Japan during his visit to Tokyo, while reiterating that he will not conduct them with Americans in his presidency. Duterte made the proposal during his visit to a coast guard unit to observe an exercise from one of the patrol vessels Japan pledged to provide the Philippines to upgrade Manila's maritime security capabilities, largely in response to China’s strong assertions of its South China Sea maritime claims. (Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Japan Coast Guard security team members display tracking and capture drills in October 2016  (Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo via AP, File)

The sovereignty of the South China Sea has been hotly debated in recent years among China and the littoral nations (especially the Philippines and Vietnam).  Beijing lays claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea under its infamous “nine-dash line” which was first published as an eleven-dash line by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government of the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan) in 1947.

Other littoral states lay claim to waters within their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends no more than 200 nautical miles from their shores, as prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  In July 2016, an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled China’s claim under the nine-dash line had no legal basis.  Beijing refused to accept the ruling, and maintains their claim not only over the waters of the South China Sea, but the considerable oil and gas and mineral resources that lie below, estimated at some 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas rated as proved or probable reserves by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  While much of the attention focuses on oil and gas drilling rights, another resource is often overlooked, that of fish.

Late last month, two Vietnamese fishermen were killed after a Philippine coast guard vessel opened fire on their boat.  The boat was carrying crew members hailing from the south-central Vietnamese province of Phu Yen.  According to a Filipino regional military spokesman, six Vietnamese fishing boats were fishing illegally some 30 nautical miles off the northern coastal town of Bolinao in the Philippines on September 22.  After the Philippine coast guard initiated pursuit, one of the Vietnamese ships turned to ram the front of the coast guard boat, at which point the Philippine coast guard opened fire.  Five Vietnamese fishermen were subsequently arrested.

The latest incident is not the first – in recent years fishing boats have witnessed increasing aggression over contested fishing rights.  In 2013, a Taiwanese fisherman was killed by a Filipino coast guard crew after allegedly sailing into Philippine waters.  And in March 2016, a Chinese coast guard vessel came to the rescue of a Chinese fishing boat caught fishing some 4 kilometres off Indonesia’s Natuna island chain.  As the Chinese fishing boat was being towed away by the Indonesian vessel, a Chinese coast guard vessel came to the rescue and rammed the Chinese fishing boat, eventually prying it free.  Such incidents as the above are becoming more common, as Chinese President Xi Jinping asserts China’s claims over “traditional fishing grounds” as part of his Great Rejuvenation project, and fishermen from many countries venture farther away from their shores to chase a dwindling catch.

Indeed, some scholars question when the disputes will end.  Johan Bergenas argues in his recent article The Next Resource War May Be Over Illegal Fishing. Is the U.S. Ready? that “major powers are ignoring the international laws and norms that guide the harvesting of fish. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, every fifth fish is caught illegally. As a result, countries have begun using military force to protect what they believe to be critical national assets. This is a recipe for disaster, with the potential to give rise to another entry on the long list of wars fought over natural resources.”

Both Vietnam and the Philippines are conducting investigations into the death of the two Vietnamese fishermen and hope to announce the results shortly.  The 2013 killing of the Taiwanese fisherman resulted in Taipei recalling its envoy to Manila and suspending any hiring of Filipino workers, yet the incident was confined to diplomatic and commercial interests – no military action was taken.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine nations going to war over their fishermen, especially those who are fishing in waters not their own.  Hopefully, other nations will join Jakarta’s lead in tracking their own fishing boats.  But with fishermen (some armed) sailing farther and farther away (some with government subsidies) from their own shores, and increased militarization of the Paracel and Spratly island chains by Beijing, Hanoi and Manila, a single shot could spark a fishing war.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666