This is the fourth of a series on how China is chewing its way through the natural resources of its Asian neighbors. Here are the others:
China takes more fish out of the world’s seas than the next five countries combined, in fleets underwritten by government agencies. In fact, China is collapsing the world’s fish stocks. The fish populations that once abounded along the country’s vast coastline have now all but vanished.
Nor is this scouring taking place only along the Chinese coastline. Today thousands of Chinese ships are trawling international waters from Guinea to Liberia and Senegal to Taiwan, Palau and Fiji and beyond to Chile and even beyond that, Chinese fishing vessels are scouring the seas for anything that swims, vastly underreporting their catches to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
No one—aside from China—knows precisely what is going on in terms of fishing around their manmade islands in the South China Sea, but reports from the general region say that fish stocks are collapsing. Even China has acknowledged that the widespread destruction of coral reefs and the poaching of sea turtles. In fact, China believes that the South China Sea is its territory – its own saltwater lake, in essence, delineated by its 1948 “nine-dash line” – and it would be foolish to imagine that anything less than what has happened to the coastline along the Chinese mainland would take place down in its newly “recovered” ancient territory.
In other words, this once ultra-rich fishery will soon turn into a wasteland, if it isn’t already. It’s not like the Chinese coast guard will allow foreign vessels to get too close.
These aren’t simply enterprising, hard-working fishermen who are willing to travel far to earn a paycheck. This is a state-sponsored activity. In a nutshell, what we have here is state-sponsored poaching of the high seas and even into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of sovereign nations, which has been causing scuffles to break out on the waves between foreign coastguards and Chinese poaching vessels. The thinking seems to be get it before it’s gone, or if we don’t catch it, someone else will, so poach it fast and get out of there.
It’s not difficult to imagine that this sort of thinking and action leads to a highly negative feedback cycle in which the oceans are rapidly overfished with state support and soon virtually emptied out. You get a desolate modern Chinese coast, except spread across the whole world. In fact, in a part of the South China Sea still under the control of the Philippines, Chinese fishermen have been seen deliberately destroying coral reefs.
This type of selfish thinking is going to lead to ecological catastrophe on a global scale in our oceans and seas. Who is going to do something about it? The WTO recently backed down on a stricter ruling regarding government fishing subsidies, and in response China’s state-funded Huanghai Shipbuilding Co. quickly built seven more tuna vessels. The United States and Canada might be able to keep Chinese vessels out of their EEZs, but how about West African nations? Chinese captains and boat owners like to target notoriously corrupt countries—many of which are located in West Africa—where they can easily make payoffs to corrupt officials. Traditional artisanal fishermen with small boats and nets cannot compete with state-sponsored Chinese poachers active in their homeland’s waters.
While China has publicly vowed to reform its foreign fishing habits, and while some countries such as the Bahamas are pushing back against Chinese fishing in their coastal waters (the Chinese are in the Caribbean too), the overall trend is towards escalated overfishing. The situation has gotten so bad, so fast, that some start-ups are thinking that “lab fish” grown in laboratories might be the solution.
And fishing “outposts” in foreign countries can have strategic and military implications as well, becoming bases and possible extensions of the military installations in the South China Sea.
We see this in happening already in Vanuatu where Chinese is building military installations (they deny it, saying they are only fishing), and also in Fiji where Chinese spy vessels are docking while hundreds of Chinese fishing boats are clearing tuna out of Fijian waters and everything else that swims.
With major military outposts in the South China Sea and now new ones sprouting up in small South Pacific nations, and with rented islands in the Maldives, 99-year leases on the Cambodian coast, debt-trap acquisitions in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it would seem that China has everything except the North Atlantic. It’s difficult to imagine that this is all a grand coincidence and not part of a secret strategy to get a stranglehold on the world’s seas, empt