15. Jun, 2021

China’s claims on the South-China Sea: fisheries in jeopardy.


China employs between 7 and 9 million fishermen (over 14 million industry-wide) who operate over 450.000 fishing vessels   (of which nearly 200,000 are ocean-going vessels) comprising the largest fleet on Earth.

Paramilitary power of the South-China Sea (SCS) China claims about 90% of the vast  SCS, an area made up of hundreds of small islands, atolls and coral reefs (see the red line in the picture et the left)*. It has even built new habitats  at an emergency rate, with 3000 m. runways for aircrafts on  several of the Spratly_Islands  at  the western side of the Philippines and NW Borneo**. This involved also   artificial islands created by dredging sand onto coral reefs which were then concreted to make permanent structures. This project, dubbed Great Wall of Sand, refers to an area where  naval ships can anchor, and bunkers have been built for the storage of ammunition, missile silos and radar systems. Overflying aircraft are sharply warned to avoid the airspace in these areas. These examples indicate that  China wants to bring the SCS under full Chinese control. However, the Spratly Islands are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, contesting China's claim to almost all of the Sea for decades, and  arguing that that  Chinese ships are violating their maritime rights. Five years ago the Permanent Cour of Arbitration in the Hague has established that these waters indeed fell within the customary exclusive economic zones of those countries.  It also rejected Chinese claims of sovereign right on these waters on historical grounds and that it has been  using large fishing boats to enforce ownership of islands and atolls.  

The cause of the SCS disputes: there aren’t enough fish in the sea. One of the explanations for China's recent assertiveness in the SCS is its struggle to supply the insatiable need for Proteins (fish) of the motherland, using huge numbers of fishing vessels, in areas far beyond China's territorial waters. The catch along the  Chinese coast has diminished  drastically.  But also in the waters of the SCS an estimated 70 to 95 % of the fish species disappeared, bringing the region’s fisheries in serious jeopardy. According to recent estimations, virtually all fishery stocks in the  SCS are collapsed (roughly 25 percent), over-exploited (roughly 25 percent), or fully-exploited (roughly 50 percent). The situation is only worsening, as manifested  in March, when  200 Chinese large fishing boats anchored on the Whitsun reef near the Philippines, presumably not manned by fishermen but by civilians under the authority of the Chinese army's coastguard. These expansions on the sea have also fuelled fears  in Western countries that the flexibility of China as a creditor of infrastructure projects in  East Africa, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, are in fact economic expansions meant for profit. 

*Source (a.o.)  NRC 4 Juni 2021. Buitenland 12 (G. van Pinxteren article)

**The Spratly  islands may sound familiar to those who had the opportunity to visit  Layang-Layang  atol (also called Swallow Reef) a  remote  superb Malaysian diving location in the SCS, which can be reached by a 1 h flight with a small airplane from Kota Kinabalu in NW Boneo.