Pelagic fishing has become an important part of Beijing’s national policy
Every time there is talk about a Japanese favorite seafood like Pacific saury and squid disappearing from tables due to a shortage in supplies, news reports tend to lay the blame on overexploitation of fish stocks by China. Very little is known, however, about the fact that China’s pelagic fishing fleet has ballooned to about 3,000 vessels, and that the government of President Xi Jinping does not shy away from conflicts with other nations on the other side of the globe. Indeed, China is waging a fisheries war on a global scale.
Writing for The Washington Post in mid-September, James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, warned that China is waging a “hybrid warfare” in fisheries. He bitterly accused Beijing of mobilizing not only fishermen but also armed forces in a bid to secure fishery resources all over the world.
“Hybrid warfare” is a complex strategy of creating unrest in a country or area through conflicts among the citizens or destruction of infrastructure, and then sending the military in the pretext of quelling the violence. The way Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 is cited as a typical example of hybrid warfare.
Stavridis, who retired only a year after the Crimean annexation, is well acquainted with such warfare. That the admiral describes the Chinese fishing expedition as constituting hybrid warfare strongly suggests that China has gone much further than simply overexploiting fishery resources.
Pelagic fishing fleets are usually composed of large ships of more than 100 tons. China recently enlarged its fleet by adding some 400 new ships between 2014 and 2016, bringing to about 2,600 the total number of vessels operating far away from home.
They are operating not only in the northern Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean, off the African coasts and in the southern Atlantic off South America. In stark contrast, the Japanese and American pelagic fishing fleets have declined to a size of less than 10 percent each of China’s. China’s total haul exceeded 60 million tons a few years ago, accounting for more than one-third of the global total.
This rapid expansion is attributed to aggressive operations of the Chinese pelagic fleets, with the full support of the Chinese government.
Illegal fishing operations
In August, the Ecuadoran authorities captured a Chinese fishing boat and took its 20 crew members into custody for illegal fishing near the Galapagos Islands. The ship was loaded with 300 tons of sharks, including hammerhead sharks, indicating that Chinese think nothing of operating near the world heritage site to obtain shark fins, a luxury food item. The captain of the ship was sentenced to three years in jail.
In March last year, an Argentine coast guard patrol ship exchanged fire with a Chinese fishing trawler operating illegally within the country’s territorial waters, and sank the trawler. According to the Argentine government, the sinking was unavoidable because the Chinese boat repeatedly tried to ram the patrol ship despite repeated warnings. The incident, which took place in waters rich in squid, shows that Chinese fishermen are not afraid of going to the farthest points from their homeland and getting into armed conflict with local authorities.
Two months after the incident, another Chinese squid fishing boat was caught off the coast of South Africa. South Africa had long refrained from taking tough actions against China — as a fellow member of the BRICS group of emerging economies — but apparently the South African government ran out of patience with the repeated rampages of Chinese fishermen.