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China’s fishing fleet part of Beijing’s drive to become a maritime power

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 4/23/2021 Yen Makabenta

First word

WHENEVER Chinese fishing vessels land in a major fishing dispute with another country, the standard rationale of China’s foreign ministry is that its fishermen are only exercising their rights to fish in traditional fishing grounds of the Chinese people.

This was the case in June 2016, when a Chinese fishing vessel was caught poaching in the Natuna Islands off the coast of Indonesia. The Indonesian navy fired on the ship and drove it away.

The Chinese foreign ministry accused the Indonesian navy of firing on a Chinese fishing boat in disputed fishing grounds.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said China should respect Indonesia’s sovereignty around the islands. “This is not a clash, but we are protecting the area,” Mr. Kalla told Reuters.

Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti tweeted that the navy “made the right move by maintaining the sovereignty of our seas.”

“Stealing fish is a crime,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry described Indonesia’s actions as an “indiscriminate use of force,” adding: “We urge the Indonesian side to refrain from any action that complicates or magnifies the dispute, or impacts the peace and stability of the region.”

The ministry said the incident had happened in a “traditional Chinese fishing ground.”

The same argument is being used by China’s foreign ministry to justify the intrusion and activities of some 200 Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, off the coast of Palawan.

The vessels dropped anchor in an area of the South China Sea that is the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the waterway. They were said to be just fishing in the area and taking shelter from adverse weather conditions.

But this of course have been dismissed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who are not enthralled by talk about a special friendship between Presidents Xi Jinping and Duterte.

The “traditional fishing grounds” rationale may sound like a reasonable explanation at first; in fact, it masks a less than innocent agenda

From fishing fleet to maritime power

On April 21, 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a highly revealing and informative report: “China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, drives Beijing’s global ambitions.” The report said:

“In Beijing’s push to become a maritime superpower, China’s fishing fleet has grown to become the world’s largest by far — and it has turned more aggressive, provoking tensions around the globe.

“The fleet brings in millions of tons of seafood a year to feed the country’s booming middle class. Foreign governments, fishermen and conservation groups have accused the fleet of illegal fishing, including by using banned equipment and venturing into other countries’ territory. That fishing has upended local economies and threatens ecosystems, including around the Galápagos Islands, affected governments and fishermen say.

“The Chinese fleet is helping the country stake out a bigger presence at sea, including by building a worldwide network of ports. The vessels, rigged with winches and booms and pulling giant nets, can be twice as large as a naval patrol boat, at an average of almost 200 feet long. Fishing crews have helped establish island settlements in waters subject to territorial disputes with neighbors.

“An analysis of transponder and global vessel registration data indicates Chinese boats involved in distant-water operations — meaning outside a country’s own territorial waters — total as many as 17,000, according to London-based researcher Overseas Development Institute. Official data and analyst estimates indicate China’s closest competitors in the industry, Taiwan and South Korea, have some 2,500 such vessels combined.

“China’s foreign ministry said that legally registered vessels were far lower, at 2,701 as of 2019. China agreed to cap its fishing vessels at 3,000 in 2017, in response to World Trade Organization efforts to cut government subsidies that contribute to overfishing.”

The world’s biggest maritime power is the United States. It is the colossus on the seas that China aspires to equal.

Chinese fishers have no rights in WPS

Former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio, writing in the Inquirer, provides a cogent explanation of how the Chinese vessels violated Philippine rights over its exclusive economic zone (West Philippine Sea) and why our government, through its navy, would be fully justified to drive them away, by force if necessary,

Justice Carpio wrote:

“China claims that part of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) enclosed by the nine-dash line is a traditional fishing ground of Chinese fishermen. That would make about 80 percent of the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the WPS a traditional fishing ground of Chinese fishermen. This Chinese claim, however, has been rejected in the award of the arbitral tribunal at The Hague. The arbitral tribunal expressly ruled that in the EEZ all historic rights, which include traditional fishing rights, have been ‘extinguished’ upon the effectivity in 1994 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos. China has made the same traditional fishing rights claim in the EEZs of Indonesia and Vietnam, and both countries have forcefully rejected the Chinese claim on the same ground that there are no traditional fishing rights in their EEZs under Unclos.

“Traditional fishing rights, under Unclos, can exist only in ‘archipelagic waters,” which are waters landward of the archipelagic baselines. The waters of the Philippine EEZ in the WPS are not archipelagic waters. Under customary international law, traditional fishing rights may also exist in the territorial sea. This is why the award declared that the territorial waters of Scarborough Shoal are the traditional fishing ground of Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen. In the EEZ, however, there are no fishing rights by other states without the express consent of the adjacent coastal state.”

Malacañang, speaking through virtual briefing, and with Harry Roque Jr. (in sick bay) determined to hang on to his job, keeps saying that it is confident that China will pull out its remaining vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef.

The problem with the Xi-Duterte friendship is that China counts on it for its insolent behavior toward us, while we blindly turn to it to restrain our response.

yenobserver@gmail.com

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