China’s aggressive fishing fleet heading for Australia amid trade war

Beijing’s monster fishing fleet has long since stripped its own waters bare and has mercilessly prowled other oceans. Now they’re coming to Australia.

Beijing’s monster fishing fleet has long since stripped its own waters bare. Now it is aggressively prowling the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans for a catch. And it is coming to Australia.

It grabs as much as it can. As fast as it can. Wherever it can. Not that there is anything entirely unusual about this.

What makes China’s fishing fleet different, however, is that the Communist Party officially sanctions its behaviour. It is organised and overseen by the Communist Party. And it’s used to assert the territorial ambitions of the Communist Party.

It’s also huge.

“Helmsman” Xi Jinping – who recently adopted the honorific reserved for founder Mao Zedong – has urged his nation to “build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish.”

That they’ve done.

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A view of Xiangzhi fishing port, one of the top five Chinese fishing ports. Picture: XIAO HAI/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

A view of Xiangzhi fishing port, one of the top five Chinese fishing ports.

It’s now the world’s largest fleet. Its operations span the globe. One count places the number of deepwater vessels at its disposal at 12,500.

Beijing claims only 3000 boats operate in international waters.

But the full extent of its operations came to light earlier this year when Global Fishing Watch released a study based on satellite data and tracking analysis.

Whatever the number, the fleet has another use – diplomatic bludgeon.

And Australia is currently Beijing’s No. 1 whipping boy.

FISH FIGHT

Australia’s rock lobster industry is just one of many targets of Beijing’s punitive economic acts. Now Australia’s fishers are worried Beijing’s fishing fleet may come for them: The site of a proposed new $204 million Chinese port is right in the middle of the Torres Strait rock lobster fishery.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne was quick to reassure that Border Force vessels would monitor the region to enforce territorial boundaries and joint-fishing treaties.

But if China claims the Papua New Guinea port gives it access to Australia’s fisheries, that could cause problems.

Former government foreign policy advisor Philip Citowicki says the proposed port is a demonstration of great-power wedge politics.

“The reality is that it continues to seat PNG at the centre of a tug of war, where the presence of China’s authoritarianism is increasingly imprinting itself on the fledgling democracies of the Pacific,” he writes.

“Rarely driven by altruism or regional responsibility, it places both the resources and security of the region at risk.”

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison shoulder bumps PNG's High Commissioner John Kali. PNG is in a tug of war between China and Australia. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage

Prime Minister Scott Morrison shoulder bumps PNG's High Commissioner John Kali. PNG is in a tug of war between China and Australia.

It’s not a new threat.

In 2018, the Lowy Institute foresaw Beijing’s fleet “may soon create new security headaches for Australia”.

“The impact of Chinese fishing has important strategic consequences for Australia’s region in several ways,” David Brewster wrote at the time.

“There is a good chance that fishing will become a key locus of disputes and incidents involving China.”

TROUBLED WATERS

Chile’s navy is on alert. China’s fishing fleet is currently off its shores. Some 400 vessels are operating in international waters. The Chilean navy says 11 have so far crossed into its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The unfolding drama is following a well-established pattern.

China’s Ecuadorean embassy insists Beijing has a “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal fishing. Yet few complaints are followed up. Fewer still are upheld.

Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) Indo-Pacific analyst Blake Herzinger says international governments are starting to wake up to the damage done.

“Globally, economic losses from illegal fishing are difficult to quantify, but there is little disagreement that the overall economic loss totals tens of billions of dollars yearly, encompassing lost tax revenue, onshore fishing industry jobs, and depletion of food supplies,” he writes.

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Chinese ship FV Shanghai 9 being seized off the coast of the Liberia during a joint operation by the Liberian coastguard and Sea Shepherd after they were found illegally fishing in 2017. Picture: AFP PHOTO/Sea Shepherd Global.

Chinese ship FV Shanghai 9 being seized off the coast of the Liberia during a joint operation by the Liberian coastguard and Sea Shepherd after they were found illegally fishing in 2017.

The small South American nations of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are worried their fisheries are in the process of being looted.

In November they issued a joint statement asserting they would combine their limited resources “to prevent, discourage and jointly confront” any illegal fishing operations.

They did not name China. But the presence of so many of China’s large, modern fishing vessels off their shores is hard to miss.

And this particular fleet has been the focus of world attention since July when it was caught within the international marine reserve surrounding Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Ecuador doesn’t have the strength to enforce international law. And its government is heavily indebted to Beijing and struggling to pay back infrastructure loans.

STRATEGIC FISHING FLEET

Beijing’s fishing fleet is not just a commercial operation. It is a party-political one.

It is organised as a militia. Key factory ships have Communist Party commissars watching over the captains and their operations. Selected crews are trained to work in concert with the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

In return, Beijing pays its fuel bill – the fishing fleet’s single greatest expense. It’s a massive subsidy that allows it to undercut its international competitors significantly.

Some vessels do no fishing at all. Instead, their job is to monitor the active fleet, intimidate fishers of other nations, or simply sit provocatively inside another nation’s territory.

This makes them a diplomatic weapon, part of Beijing’s determination to wage “hybrid war” – the use of every means available short of kinetic weaponry – to assert its will.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel departs for near Senkaku Islands in 2017 after reports of overfishing in the area by Chinese vessels. Picture: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

A Japan Coast Guard vessel departs for near Senkaku Islands in 2017 after reports of overfishing in the area by Chinese vessels.

They’ve recently been highly visible off the Philippines and Indonesia.

Beijing’s fishing militia also receives unprecedented military support.

Wherever the fleet goes, armed coast guard ships usually follow – no matter how far from China’s coast the fleet may be. And China’s coast guard is not a civilian police force. The People’s Liberation Army operates it. And that dramatically escalates the implications of any confrontation.

Herzinger says international fishing regulations are being enforced – but only against weaker nations such as Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

China escapes criticism because of the power of its potential economic and at-sea backlash.

The CIMSEC analyst argues the best response would be international sanctions:

“Shipbuilders, exporters, fish processing, and equipment manufacturers supporting China’s distant water fishing fleet should all be considered within the realm of possibility for sanction,” he writes.

“The prospect of collapse for a primary source of protein for more than 10 per cent of the world’s population is worthy of attention.”

HUNGER GAMES

China’s 1.4 billion people love seafood – each reportedly consuming an average of 37.8 kilos a year. That’s some 38 per cent of the total annual worldwide catch.

But Beijing’s fishing fleet also sells huge quantities to markets such as the US, Europe and Australia.

Exactly how much it takes from the oceans is unknown. The militia does not report its catch to international authorities. Only the Communist Party gets that data.

It has a history, though.

China’s coastal waters have been fished to the point of destruction. Studies suggest only 15 per cent of the region’s pre-1980s fish population survives. And yet, some 300,000 coastal fishing vessels continue to chase them down.

China, and the world’s, huge appetite for seafood is part of the reason the oceans are being so aggressively fished. Picture: GREG BAKER/ AFP

China, and the world’s, huge appetite for seafood is part of the reason the oceans are being so aggressively fished.

And the destruction of crucial South China Sea spawning grounds through their conversion into artificial island fortresses hasn’t helped the prospects of recovery.

China’s politically-controlled fleet is now operational worldwide. It also can be found among European and African vessels in the Atlantic Ocean off northwest Africa.

But it’s not just China.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 90 per cent of global commercial fish stocks are depleted. Now climate change is destroying environments, with “dead zones” of oxygen-depleted waters expanding in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal.

Up to one-third of the seafood catch imported into the US has been found to have inadequate documentation – indicating it has been illegally caught.

“Much of that illegal catch comes from the exclusive economic zones of states such as Guinea, the Philippines, and North Korea that are impoverished and cannot exercise sufficient control of their maritime areas,” Herzinger says.

Beijing insists its fleets are innocent. And, besides, its wolf-warrior diplomats declare, the entire international fishing system is both chaotic and corrupt. Which means any attempt to single-out Beijing for criticism must have ulterior motives.






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