Standing captive on the bow of his boat, hands clasped tightly behind his head, Vietnamese fishing trawler captain Tran Van Nhan and his crew were told to stay quiet and look away as Chinese sailors wielding electric prods stole their catch.
The unreported incident last month was the first time Nhan had been caught by China’s Coast Guard since it stepped up patrols in contested areas of the South China Sea a few years back. Six Chinese officials in blue uniforms boarded his tiny trawler from a 3,000-ton armored patrol ship to tell him to stop fishing in waters that had supported his forefathers for generations.
Caught in the Middle
“They said ‘This is China’s water. You are not allowed to go fishing here. If you continue to do this, your net will be cut and your boat will be taken to China and you will be punished,’” Nhan, 43, said while sitting on his trawler as it docked in Tam Quang, a small fishing commune in the central Vietnam province of Quang Nam.
Tran Van Nhan on his fishing trawler. Photographer: Maika Elan/Bloomberg
Nhan’s crew lost everything it had worked for days to catch—just over two tons of dried squid valued at some $10,000, roughly four times the average Vietnamese annual income. There was nothing to do but return home. “The crew was terrified and didn’t have any spirit left to continue fishing,” he said.
Fishermen like Nhan are on the front lines of Asia’s most complex territorial dispute, which involves six claimants and outside powers like the U.S. with an interest in protecting a waterway that carries more than $3 trillion in trade each year. While many incidents go unreported, China’s investments in patrolling the South China Sea have given it a leg up in the race to secure energy and fishing resources that account for about a tenth of the global catch.
“You can call it a silent war,” said Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute. The Chinese “are contesting waters. There is violence. It happens all the time.”
While China appears to be the biggest offender due to its size and resources, it’s not alone in seeking to protect fishing grounds as stocks get depleted and rules remain lax. Other claimants such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam have taken action against fishing crews from China and other nations, sometimes even making a show of destroying vessels that were impounded.
“Not only China, but also generally there is a growing recognition by regional governments of the pertinent need to scale up efforts to safeguard their maritime rights and interests, not least fisheries,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Several high-profile incidents in recent months have spotlighted the increased dangers of fishing in the South China Sea. In March, Vietnam accused a Chinese coast guard vessel of sinking a fishing boat near the Paracel Islands. Then last month a Chinese vessel collided with a Philippine trawler near the islands further to the south, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen stranded at sea.
A Chinese coastguard ship seen near Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea on May 14. Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images
Under President Xi Jinping, China has more forcefully asserted its claims to more than 80% of the South China Sea, building runways and military facilities on territory claimed by other nations. It has also raised a navy of more than over 300 ships, eclipsing the U.S. to become the largest in the Asia Pacific.
In addition, China has utilized less conventional means to clear the sea of its maritime adversaries—a so-called maritime militia of well-equipped vessels numbering in the hundreds—disguised as fishing vessels that patrol, surveil, resupply, and sometimes, provoke. At least one Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel was involved in 73% of all reported incidents in the South China Sea since 2010, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“By any metric, the Chinese are involved in the majority of the violent incidents, either the Chinese Coast Guard, or the Chinese fisherman getting into it with their neighbors,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, pointing to violent incidents in the Paracels. “Vietnamese fishers are often harassed, boarded, beat up, held for ransom even by the Chinese.”
China has rejected claims that it’s doing anything out of the ordinary in the South China Sea, repeatedly calling for disputes to be resolved through one-on-one talks and for countries like the U.S. to avoid interfering.
Incidents can be resolved “based on the principle of mutual compromise and friendly consultation,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said this month when asked about the collision with the Philippine trawler.
“We do not want some individual incidents to be amplified and interfere with the overall situation of our bilateral relations,” Geng said.
Workers sort fish at the Tam Quang harbor in Vietnam. Photographer: Maika Elan/Bloomberg
In the Philippines, enduring maritime tensions with Beijing pose a serious risk for the country’s $5.15 billion fishing industry.
Job Dalisaymo, a 71-year-old lifelong fisherman, said the growing safety concerns are pushing him out of the industry. His once peaceful excursions to Scarborough Shoal some 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon have in recent years been met by unprovoked violence, a risk he said he’s no longer willing to take.
“I fear going back there—we might not make it back home alive,” Dalisaymo said while sitting beneath a rickety bamboo awning on a stretch of coast along Zambales province north of Manila. “Who knows, maybe they’ll use water cannons again and leave us floating there.”
Scarborough Shoal has for years been a source of tension between Beijing and Manila after the Philippine Navy apprehended a group of Chinese fishing frigates there in 2012 for trespassing. The Philippines in 2016 won a case against China before an international tribunal, but that didn’t stop Beijing from building on disputed territory.
Job Dalisaymo in his home in the coastal town of Cabangan in Zambales province, the Philippines. Photographer: Geric Cruz/Bloomberg
The ensuing naval build up has exacerbated other problems devastating the fishing industry, from widespread poaching to depleted fishing stocks stemming from extreme environmental damage, data shows. Total fish stocks have dropped by 70-95% since the 1950s, according to CSIS, while catch rates have declined by 66-75% over the last 20 years.
“It used to be paradise—all the good fish would go near our boat,” said fisherman Jorge Limuardo, who has stopped fishing from the shoal after Chinese vessels limited access. “Now all the corals have been removed. It’s now like a forest with all the trees cut off.”
The plight of fisherman also political ramifications. In the Philippines, last month’s boat collision has stoked deep divisions within a government that has struggled to counter Chinese assertiveness in the face of warming ties between President Rodrigo Duterte and counterpart Xi Jinping.
The incident prompted contradictory statements from government and military officials, with some calling on the Philippines to assert its territorial rights, while others offered a softer stance. Duterte would not speak of the matter directly until days later, when he downgraded to the collision to a “maritime incident.”
“If I want to prohibit Chinese fishing, how do I enforce my desire?” he said during a speech on June 26. “Even America won’t do so out of fear of confrontation there.”
Indonesia has adopted a more aggressive approach to the fishing crisis, asserting its claim to develop fishing storage facilities on the Natuna Regency off the northwest coast of Borneo. To deal with poaching, they often destroy dozens of boats seized in its waters, many of which are Chinese.
In Vietnam, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang last month demanded compensation for its fishermen after Chinese vessels chased and stole property from them near the Paracel Islands.
China has dismissed such requests for compensation in the past, instead accusing other nations of breaching the law. A draft code of conduct with Southeast Asian nations has made little progress over the past decade despite regular discussions.
For Nhan, the Vietnamese fisherman who surrendered his catch to China, the solution is more straight forward.
“The water belongs to Vietnam, the Paracel Islands belong to us,” he said. “We have been fishing in this water since our grandparents’ generation.”