27 Aug, 2021

Geopolitics and food security: why China goes fishing

by Giorgio Cuscito

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is increasingly using its fishing industry for geopolitical purposes. Beijing is deploying fishing boats near and far from Chinese borders with two targets: satisfying its domestic demand of food and expanding PRC’s sovereignty and influence abroad in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, the geopolitical project launched by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013.

Such dynamics take place especially in the South China Sea, Oceania, Africa and South America, which are reached by the maritime routes of BRI.

Why Chinese fishing activities matter

PRC’s impact on fishing industry is so big that it has a deep effect on the rest of the world from both geopolitical and environmental point of view.

Seafood represents an important part of Chinese population diet and a key element of China’s food security. The PRC consumes the largest quantity of fish in the world: 65 million tonnes in 2018, which accounts for 45% of the global volume (144 million)[1]. It means that on average Chinese consumption per capita is more than double compared to the rest of the world.

Besides, the PRC is both the most important fish producer in the world (accounting 35% of global fish production in 2018) and its main exporter. If we exclude China’s share, 34% of the production came from Asia, 14% from America, 10% from Europe, 7% from Africa and 1% from Oceania. China is first in the world both for global capture fisheries and farmed aquatic food production. 

The total number of fishing vessels (including non-motorized boats) in the world is over 4.5 million. PRC’s fishing fleet is the world’s largest: 2,701 in 2019 according to the official numbers. Anyway, the London-based Overseas Development Institute estimates that China deployed 17,000 vessels in distant-water operations[2]. In 1985, its very first distant-water fleet comprised 13 fishing boats. China is the first country in terms of fishing activities in foreign waters with a share of 38%, according to the Stimson Center. It is followed by Taiwan (22%), Japan and South Korea (10% each)[3]. 

Massive Chinese fishing activities has contributed to the depletion of fishery resources and attracted criticism abroad. Beijing has adopted some policy changes to protect the environment. For example, it banned the processing and trade of giant clams in 2017 and adopted stricter regulation against the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) in 2019. Anyway, such measures didn’t prevent disputes with other countries. 

The South China Sea

Beijing deploys a large quantity of ships to assert its control over 90% of the South China Sea’s water mass, specifically on Paracel and Spratly islands. Western countries call them China’s “maritime militia”. The former archipelago is also claimed by Vietnam, while the latter by Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the South China Sea, China and to a lesser extent the other countries have built several artificial islands for military and civil purposes. Since 2013, PRC created 3,200 acres of new land, Vietnam built 120 acres and Taiwan built eight acres. Beijing wants to use these installations to extend its military projections far from its land borders and better defend itself in case of military attack by the United States, which have military bases in South Korea, Japan, Philippines and Singapore. The island-building operations have negative environmental effects on marine flora, fauna, and ecosystems.

The so-called China’s “maritime militia” increased fisheries in those waters to legitimize its claims, supported by the Coast guard and with the help of Chinese Beidou navigation satellite system. Its deployment on global scale and along the routes of BRI will allow China to be more efficient on economic level, to gather more information abroad and to be independent from the American GPS. According to official Chinese sources, Beidou is 95% accurate in terms of localization. The military theater of immediate application remains the one comprising the South China Sea and Taiwan, where crossings between ships and planes of the People's Republic and the US take place daily. 

Philippines and Vietnam are the most fervent opponents to Chinese tactics, but they failed to neutralize them. In 2016, a tribunal by the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of Manila rejecting PRC’s claims in the South China Sea. But the verdict wasn’t binding, so Beijing didn’t change its posture, preserved its military installations and continued to deploy the “maritime militia” in the South China Sea.

In March 2021, about 200 Chinese ships have moored at Whitsun Reef, whose sovereignty is contested both by PRC and Philippines. The story does not seem to depend on the need for boats to shelter from the bad weather. After that Manila stated that China built “illegal structures” in the same area. Whitsun Reef is part of the Union Banks, where PRC and Vietnam have two and four military installations respectively. 

Oceania

Just off the South China Sea, countries in Oceania are seriously concerned about Chinese fishing activities, which increased proportionally with PRC’s investments in infrastructures like ports, airports. Between 2018 and 2019, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Salomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands and Samoa joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2020, Palau intercepted and detained PRC’S boats illegally fishing sea cucumbers in its territorial waters.

Last February, Australian media claimed that a Chinese company was willing to build a new city on the Papua New Guinean island of Daru, which is close to maritime waters controlled by Canberra. The project would include an industrial zone, a seaport and other infrastructures over a 100 km2 area. Months before, Port Moresby and the Chinese Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company signed a memorandum of understanding to build a 200-million-dollar industrial fishery park in Daru, igniting the debate among the locals about the agreement.

Fishing activities is relevant for the economy of countries in Oceania. Their involvement in the BRI traces the Chinese penetration route in Australian sphere of influence and help Beijing to counter US containment strategy in the South China Sea.

Africa 

In Africa China works on 16 fishing projects and has 20 fishing cooperatives operating and over 500 boats. Their presence doesn’t depend just on economic interests. Beijing aims to develop infrastructural corridors crossing the continent for two reasons. First, it wants to increase its diplomatic and military presence close to Europe, which belongs to the US sphere of influence in Eurasia. Second, China is searching for ways to reduce its dependence from the conventional root crossing Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

In this context, Sierra Leone is a meaningful case. A Chinese State-owned enterprise is going to build an industrial fishing harbor on Black Johnson beach, close to the Peninsula National Park. The project triggered the protest of environmentalists and local fishermen, who produces the 70% of the fish for the domestic market. Besides, the Import-Export Bank of China will loan Mauritania 87 million dollars loan to build a fishing harbor 25 km north of capital Nouakchott.

The US is aware of Chinese tactics. Last May, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, US AFRICOM commander put the spotlight on the PRC, claiming that it is willing to build a second military base on the Western coast of Africa besides the one opened in Djibouti in 2017. Chinese strategists have been debating about it for years. The improvement of the PRC armed forces and the relentless Sino-US collision course could accelerate these types of activities.

South America 

PRC’s distant-water fishing fleet extends its range of action to Pacific coastline of South America too. Especially close to Ecuador (world’s largest shrimps exporter), Chile, Peru and Colombia. Quito detected Chinese ships many times at the edge of it exclusive economic zone (Eez) around the Galapagos Islands. Ecuadorian officials claim that their activities are damaging the biodiversity of the archipelago. 

Today Latin America isn’t at the top of Beijing’s geopolitical priorities. Anyway, economic interests aside, in the long run Beijing wants to consolidate its presence in the so-called “America’s backyard” to discourage Washington’s efforts to destabilize Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific. Especially in the South China Sea, where the US support Southeast Asian countries maritime claims against Beijing and Taiwan’s de facto independence.

To this end, China finances infrastructures in several Latin American countries and some of them (e.g., Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Barbados and Panama) joined the BRI. Beijing defined the Latin America and Caribbean region as a “natural extension” of the maritime branch of the project. That’s the reason why in the US discussions are taking place about leading a coalition with South American countries to counter China’s illegal fishing activities[4]. 

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that PRC’s fish production will reach 74 million tonnes in 2030[5] and that the country will continue to be the major exporter of fish for human consumption, followed by Vietnam and Norway. Both domestic needs, driven by the appetite of the emerging middle class and geopolitical ambitions abroad will stimulate China to preserve its role as a major actor in the fishing industry worldwide. Especially where maritime resources are plenty and investments in infrastructures are needed.

[1] "How much fish do we consume? First global seafood consumption footprint published”, EU Science hub, 27/9/2018.

[2] M. GUTIERREZ, G. JOBBINS, “China’s distant-water fishing fleet: scale, impact and governance”, Odi.org, 2/6/2020.

[3] “Shining a Light: The Need for Transparency across Distant Water Fishing”, Stimson Center, November 2019.

[4] B. ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN, “Exclusive: U.S. urged to join South America in fighting China fishing” Axios, 23/3/2021.

[5] “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Sustainability in action”, FAO, 2020, Rome.