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Fishing ban - Beijing’s “two-sided game” in the South China Sea

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Fishing ban Beijings two-sided game in the South China SeaOn May 11, 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that Vietnam “has no right to comment on China's annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea, because this measure is under China’s administrative authority”, in order to counter Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman’s earlier objection to China’s recent fishing ban and demand that Beijing do not complicate the situation in South China Sea.

Ms. Hua also stated that “it is indisputable that the Paracel Islands (known as Xisha in China) are a part of China’s territory”, and that “China enjoys sovereignty and jurisdiction rights in its territorial waters of the South China Sea in accordance with international law and Chinese domestic law”.

On the same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian also said that “Vietnam has no right to make unwarranted accusations against China”. Mr. Zhao added that, under international law and Chinese domestic law, Beijing enjoyed sovereignty and jurisdiction over certain parts of the South China Sea. He even went so far as to threaten that “Vietnam must not encourage their fishermen to infringe upon Chinese rights and interests”.

Zhao Lijian’s statement was a response to the Vietnam Fisheries Society’s opposition against China’s unilateral fishing ban. In a statement on May 4, 2020, the Vietnam Fisheries Society said that China’s fishing ban had violated its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and Vietnamese waters; violating Vietnamese fishermen’s lawful rights and interests by obstructing their production; and violating international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS and related legal documents.

This raises a question about the actual force that causes such degradation of environment and aquatic resources that China has to issue an annual unilateral fishing ban, so as to “protect marine resources and sustainable development in the South China Sea”. Logically, it should not be China. Nonetheless, at a recent International Seminar on “Environmental and Maritime Security for a Blue South China Sea”, scientists had concluded that 95% of the impacts on marine environment in this region were caused by China.

Gregory B. Poling, senior fellow for Southeast Asia and Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said that China had destroyed about 40,000 acres of coral reefs to construct artificial islands. He also cited figures from the Philippines press, according to which, in 2019 alone, giant clam harvesting activities done by Chinese vessels had seriously affected the coral reefs around the western shoals of the Luzon island in the Philippines.

Hunter Stires, Fellow at the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research, US Naval War College, cited the same figure as Mr. Poling, affirming that China was world-famous for “paving over” thousands of acres of coral reefs to construct a series of militarized artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, stressing how Chinese giant fishing fleets’ use of stow nets had destroyed the seabed in neighboring countries’ exclusive economic zone. In order to catch the endangered giant clam, China did not hesitate to employ propeller boats to destroy Scarborough Shoal coral reefs, under the Philippines’ sovereignty.

Assessing these destructive activities on the environment and marine life in the South China Sea, John W. McManus, PhD., Professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami, described the area as seriously devastated, chiefly under the impact of Chinese activities. Chinese fishing boats have been digging and dredging the seabed to find giant clams. China denied the construction of artificial islands in these coral reefs, while they have in fact destroyed a major part of the area to do so. Other countries in the region conduct less than 1% of China's destructive activities. Specifically, 160 square kilometers of coral reefs have been destroyed, of which 17 square kilometers were caused by the construction of artificial islands, while an additional 143 square kilometer were destroyed due to China’s exploitation for construction materials and giant clams.

China has unilaterally imposed fishing regulations in the South China Sea, including seasonal closures, requiring non-Chinese fishermen to ask for Chinese permission to fish. Meanwhile, they have equipped their 50,000 fleets with extremely modern fishing and communication equipment. The ongoing environmental destruction in the South China Sea is so grave that Professor McManus had to exclaim that China had “depleted” the sea.

Expressing her regret for the maritime environment destruction in the South China Sea, Dr. Annette Junio Menne, former Director of the Marine Science Institute, University of the Philippines, affirmed that there existed a Coral Triangle with more than 500 different species in the South China Sea, home to 3,000 sea creatures. However, China’s rough construction and accretion of artificial islands has exceeded the permissible standards, causing large areas of coral reefs and sediments to disappear forever. That causes great long-term damage to the environment. According to Dr. Menne, economically, the world loses at least USD$4 billion every year to the uncontrolled exploitation of coral reefs in the South China Sea. Not only does this destroy the environment, but also undermines the prosperity of other nations in the South China Sea.

According to an international organization for monitoring illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, China is the leading country in the world with the highest number of fishing vessels violating the provisions of international law. According to research findings from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank based in Washington, D.C. in the United States, large scale exploitation of giant clam and dredging of the seabed for artificial islands construction, mostly conducted by China, are the main cause for marine life extinction.

As such, it is China who has been destroying the environment and gradually exhausting marine resources in the South China Sea. Aware of such harm, China has unilaterally issued the annual fishing ban, explaining that “not only does it protect the interests of the Chinese people, but also the interests of the people of other countries”. However, considering the scope of the annual Chinese fishing ban, which covers the entire northern sea section of the “nine-dash line”, while its southern part from the 12 degrees north latitude upward, covers a joint fishing area with Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, it is evident that the ban has seriously violated the agreement between the two countries, not to mention it also covers a disputed area between China and the Philippines. Clearly, China’s fishing ban has seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, as well as Vietnam’s rights and interests in its waters, and international laws including the 1982 UNCLOS.

Greg Poling commented that China's fishing ban covered 1.3 million square kilometers, but only 28% were within China's exclusive economic zone. The remaining 25% are disputed waters with other countries, 18% are international waters, 18% are exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and 10% are exclusive economic zones of Vietnam. As such, the fishing ban is not merely a tool for economic gain, but also an evidence of Beijing's ambition for sovereignty over the South China Sea.

Not only does China’s annual fishing ban infringe on other countries’ waters and marine resources, but it is also in fact a step towards Beijing’s goal of asserting sovereignty under the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. In the long run, it is likely to create Beijing propaganda intended-illusion of normalcy, which may create misunderstanding among public opinion that the area in question is under Chinese sovereignty.

Therefore, the countries concerned need to raise their voices in order to attract international public opinion, helping them understand the nature of China’s actions, as well as taking the needed measures to support and encourage fishermen from other countries to continue fishing in their national waters.

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