Beijing’s South China Sea fishing ban threatens to raise tensions


U.S. Navy ships from Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group sailing in formation in the South China Sea in this Oct. 6, 2019, file photo. EPA
U.S. Navy ships from Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group sailing in formation in the South China Sea in this Oct. 6, 2019, file photo. EPA

U.S. Navy ships from Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group sailing in formation in the South China Sea in this Oct. 6, 2019, file photo. EPA
Tensions are expected to rise in the South China Sea after Beijing’s annual summer ban on fishing in the disputed waters drew protests from rival claimants.

China said it would prohibit fishing activities in the waters Beijing has claimed above the 12th parallel ― including areas near the Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Islands, and the Gulf of Tonkin ― to conserve stocks.

The ban, which came into effect from noon on May 1 runs until August 16 and China’s coastguard has promised to take the “strictest measures” to stop any “illegal fishing activities.”

Fishing communities in Vietnam and the Philippines have urged their governments to take a strong stance and on Friday Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said Hanoi rejected the “unilateral decision.”

“Vietnam asks China not to further complicate the situation in the South China Sea,” she said in a statement.

“Vietnamese fishermen have the complete right to fish in waters under their sovereignty,” the Vietnam Fisheries’ Society said in a statement on its website early this week, adding that the ban violates international law and Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.

In Manila, local fishery organizations also called on the Philippine government not to give in to “China’s bullying.”

“The Philippine government should not waste time and wait for Chinese maritime officers to arrest our fishermen,” said Fernando Hicap, chairman of the National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations.

“They have no right and moral ascendancy to declare a fishing ban in the guise of conserving fish stocks in marine waters that they have no legal claim, and they have massively destroyed through reclamation activities.”

Beijing claims 80 per cent of the South China Sea, which is contested by neighboring countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

China first introduced a seasonal ban in the waters in 1999, saying it would help sustain fishing resources in one of the world’s biggest fishing grounds.

The waters provide food and jobs for millions of peoples in surrounding countries but overfishing and climate change threaten their sustainability.

This year’s ban comes at a time of rising tensions over fishing rights and observers warned that any missteps could raise the risks of confrontation.

Last month, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after colliding with a Chinese coastguard vessel near the Paracel Islands, known in China as the Xisha Islands and in Vietnam as the Hoang Sa archipelago.

China accused the fishing boat of ramming the coastguard vessel, but Vietnam blamed the Chinese vessel and lodged an official protest.

Citing satellite images, the South China Sea Probing Initiative, a think tank affiliated with Peking University, said that at least 379 Vietnamese vessels had been engaged in “illegal activities” off the Gulf of Tonkin and Guangdong and Hainan provinces last month, while 511 had done so in March.

Kang Lin, a research fellow with Hainan University, said Vietnamese fishing boats posed “a direct challenge” to China’s ban.

“They are not only challenging China’s sovereignty over the reefs and islets but also the [right of] jurisdiction over the waters,” Kang said.

“According to current trends, it is likely that Vietnamese fishing boats will step up their activities in the coming few months posing a challenge to China’s fishing ban.”

Kang said fishermen from other claimants, including the Philippines, are expected to follow suit.

In a rare show of solidarity, the Philippine foreign ministry also expressed concerns over the clash between the Vietnamese boat and the Chinese coastguard vessel.

The statement referred to a similar collision last year, when 22 Filipino fishermen were left in the water near Reef Bank after their boat sank before being rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat.

The competition for fishing rights is one of the main motivations for the dispute over the waters, and observers warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could prompt a food crisis that would heighten the risk of conflict in the region.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that governments in the region may step up their support for local fishing communities and fishery protection tasks.

“In the context of the disputes, it could potentially mean increased risks of fishery incidents as countries scramble for scarce [and depleting] living resources in the South China Sea,” Koh said.

“In other words, post-pandemic South China Sea tensions could rise because of the increased focus of the regional countries on bolstering food security, where fish constitute such an important part of their protein intakes.”

The United Nations has warned that as many as 265 million people will face “acute food shortages” by the end of this year as a result of the pandemic.

Vietnam, the world’s third largest rice exporter, banned foreign sales between March and April to protect domestic supplies.

Kang said that while there would not be a global food crisis in the near future, if the pandemic continues to worsen, and more food exports are banned, countries in the region may send more fishing boats to the waters to ensure food security.

“In that case, China’s fishing ban will meet with more opposition in future,” Kang said.