Fish and Ships: Chinese Fishing and Europe’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

Written by | Tuesday, September 7th, 2021

The fisheries sector has gradually become a central geopolitical issue in the Indo-Pacific. Out of the 84.4m tonnes of fish caught in seas across the world in 2018, around 61.4m Tonnes came from the Indian and Pacific oceans. Although the intensity of fishing varies across regions, the depletion of fishery resources is a growing problem everywhere. China, which catches more fish than any other nation, vastly contributes to this problem with not only its fleet size and the tonnage of its catches, but also its fishing practices – which include illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing – and, above all, a fisheries policy that exports its environmental problems and thereby protects its own national marine areas. Moreover, China instrumentalizes fishing to serve its revisionist agenda and its strategic interests more broadly, signaling its willingness to use traditional economic activities for geopolitical gain.

The specific problem of China’s fisheries policy exacerbates the broader one of a global decline in fish stocks, which are being exploited at unsustainable levels for one-third of all affected species. In recent decades, fish consumption has risen at an annual rate twice that of population growth, from 9kg per person in 1961 to more than 20kg per person in 2016. While the global tonnage of fish caught has been relatively stable since the 1990s, the past 50 years have seen a clear downward trend in the share of fish stocks that are at sustainable levels, from 90% in 1974 to 65.8% in 2017. However, the sustainability level varies across different zones of the Indo-Pacific. It is at 54.5% in the south-eastern Pacific; between 78% and 87% in the north-western Pacific, the eastern central Pacific, the western central Pacific; and at 73.5% in the eastern Indian Ocean and 67% in the western Indian Ocean – which, as a consequence, have become attractive hubs for Chinese fishery.

The European Union has included the governance of fisheries and the fight against IUU fishing on the agenda of its future strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. If the agenda is partly normative, the EU’s Indo-Pacific policy should prioritize the reinforcement of fisheries management capacities in the region. This would help China’s neighbours regain control of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The EU has a remarkably strong position in all areas that would help it structure an effective and lasting system of fisheries management – from its influence on the norms of control to its export of ocean surveillance equipment, expertise, and capacity building. At a time when the EU is trying to contribute to maritime security more effectively, it has an opportunity to take an inclusive and non-politicized approach to fishery. Such an approach is sure to have a strategic impact, through the creation of effective multilateral coalitions that focus on these issues.

Many European states could be tempted to consider China’s fisheries practices as a regrettable yet distant phenomenon with little or no impact on their interests. Yet control of fisheries is part of a new strategic landscape in which the appropriation of resources combines with the rapid militarization of the oceans. As such, this has direct and indirect consequences for European interests. Indirectly, the predatory nature of China’s fishing could destabilize many regions along the sea lines of communication that are vital to European trade. Piracy off the Somali coast between 2005 and 2012 resulted from overfishing in Somali waters and fishermen’s need for an alternative source of income. Reports by the Madagascar Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre regularly raise Chinese IUU fishing off the coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean generally.

Unlike in South China Sea, China has no direct territorial claims in Africa, but fishing plays no less of a strategic role – particularly in light of the country’s assertion of its presence in the Mozambique Channel, whose importance partly stems from the vulnerabilities of the Suez Canal. The risk here is that China will gradually gain control of the African coast, which is of growing international importance due to the continent’s status as a future centre of economic growth. Some European states are more vulnerable than others, due to their territorial presence in parts of the Indo-Pacific. In Madagascar, Chinese fisheries policies directly threaten French interests in the region. In the Pacific, China’s fishing has spurred a wave of protests in French Polynesia, with demonstrators accusing Chinese vessels of operating illegally and demanding that they be banned from catching tuna. More broadly, China has shown a willingness to dilute France’s presence and influence in both the Indian and Pacific oceans. Lastly, it is possible that China will directly implement its strategy of occupying terrain with its fishing flotilla in other fish-rich regions in the Pacific. China’s fisheries policy is in direct opposition to Europe’s aims to protect biodiversity, particularly marine biodiversity, and creates precedents of a Chinese presence that the country can later use for political and strategic purposes.

Of course, China is not the only state to push its fleets to engage in illegal fishing or to contribute to overfishing. Nonetheless, it has done so on the largest scale by far. China is one of the very few countries to have made fisheries part of the public sector and, above all, to have established a fishing arm of its navy to serve its strategic interests. China has profoundly transformed the maritime strategic landscape and complicated the nature of the potential response by positioning fishermen – commercial actors – to face the armed forces of states that dispute its claims to various economic zones. The scale of China’s violations of existing regulations calls into question the sincerity of its commitment to them and the scientific and economic rationale for its actions, since it has simultaneously encouraged the protection of its national resources and the plunder of foreign waters.

The good governance of fisheries is a crucial element of a global order based on adherence to international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But, as reflected in French initiatives in the Indo-Pacific, it is also important to protect the fishery resources of overseas territories and, through these, the EU’s sovereign interests and strategic positioning. Europe cannot be a bystander on this issue just because China is a rising military power in the region. Not only is the predatory nature of Chinese fishing policies in direct opposition to European objectives to protect marine biodiversity, but control of the Mozambique Channel – and the need to prevent political and strategic polarisation in the region similar to that in the South China Sea – is vital to European interests.

Moreover, Europeans cannot ignore the potentially destabilizing effects of China’s fisheries policy on Indo-Pacific littoral states. Europe paid most of the cost of the fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia, which was a consequence of overfishing before it became an organized crime issue. Beijing took advantage of this to legitimize its presence in the Indian Ocean and establish a military base in Djibouti. China is now contributing to overfishing along the entire eastern and southern African coast. And its role in anti-piracy operations was limited to the protection of Chinese ships. In other words, China is creating the conditions for the reappearance of piracy while pushing the costs of it onto Europeans.

Furthermore, the EU should show that cooperation with China as part of negotiations on biodiversity can complement pressure on the country to change its behaviour in the fisheries sector. Biodiversity negotiations would yield international norms that made it easier for the EU to hold Beijing to account for this behaviour, as Chinese decision-makers would be involved in drawing up agreements produced by the talks. European capacity building in Indo-Pacific littoral states would help them ensure that China complied with the resulting norms, thereby helping protect the EU’s interests.

This would also create an opportunity to mobilize states around a common interest – whose importance will only grow as food insecurity rises, and which has ramifications far beyond the fisheries sector itself. By forming coalitions on fisheries management, the EU could develop an approach to China that turns on not just political considerations but also the common interests that may arise in the field. The union could develop these coalitions to help bind China with a series of technical constraints that the country helped create. This would, in turn, help the EU not only sustain its influence in the Indo-Pacific but also redefine the terms of its discussions with China while avoiding confrontation.

‘Fish and Ships: Chinese Fishing and Europe’s Indo-Pacific Strategy’ — Policy Brief by Frédéric Grare — European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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