Cracking Down on China’s Distant Water Fishing Fleet: What Impacts Closer to Home?

Date: September 24, 2018

Source: RUSI

Author:  Veerle Nouwens* and Cathy Haenlein**

China has reportedly started cracking down on its distant water fleet (DWF), namely, its fleet of vessels that fish in areas outside the country’s domestic waters. The move has come as a surprise to fishing companies and the counter-illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing community alike given the country’s previous apparent reluctance to tackle illegal activity in its domestic fishing industry. However, further momentum can be seen through the recently signed EU-China Blue Partnership for the Oceans, which includes a commitment to tackling IUU fishing. If China’s efforts are sincere, they should be applauded. However, the potential knock-on effects of such a move should also be considered. First, how will China tackle IUU fishing where maritime borders are disputed? Secondly, how might China’s crackdown on Chinese fishers impact Taiwanese fishers abroad at a time of heightened tension between China and Taiwan?

China’s role in the global IUU fishing problem is well-documented. According to a 2018 study by Global Fishing Watch, China’s fishing operations are the world’s largest and farthest-ranging. Greenpeace estimates that China’s DWF is comprised of 2,500 vessels; in 2016, Chinese-flagged vessels were seized off South Africa and Argentina, among other locations. These represent only a fraction of the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) worldwide in which Chinese-flagged vessels operate illegally. In addition to poor controls in these countries, ChinaDialogue Ocean notes that enablers of IUU fishing by China’s DWF lie in rapid growth and poor regulation, weak global enforcement, the provision of fuel subsidies by the Chinese government, and inadequate port checks on incoming vessels and catch.

But times are changing. In February 2018, China’s Ministry of Agriculture published a list of DWF companies and vessels that it penalised during the previous year. In December last year, the Chinese government published plans to limit the size of the DWF to 3,000 vessels by 2020, to create a blacklist system that would ban offending company executives and captains from the industry, and to further increase regulations by 2020. The government also plans to create 10 fishing port clusters by 2025 with upgraded technology to better collect data on catches. However, as ChinaDialogue Ocean notes, enforcement will continue to be a problem irrespective of these efforts, particularly if government subsidies that encourage overcapacity in the industry are not cut.

Beyond domestic efforts, China has also agreed to cooperate with others to address IUU fishing by its DWF. The recently-signed EU-China Blue Partnership for the Oceans is a case in point. It includes the provision of information on potential IUU vessels, cooperation on sustainable fisheries management, and efforts to improve systems of control, inspection and enforcement. If these efforts do not bear fruit, it is not clear whether the EU would consider penalising China with a ‘yellow card’, a warning that indicates improvements in the sector are needed if the country wishes to avoid a ‘red card’ and accompanying trade restrictions. China’s recent moves to better regulate the sector could be seen as part an effort to avoid such a showdown. And, to an extent, this will also help to promote China as a responsible international stakeholder.

While this is commendable, a clampdown on IUU fishing by China may have unforeseen repercussions. Unresolved maritime boundary disputes in the region may be further complicated by the use of ‘counter-IUU fishing’ narratives as a tool to defend national maritime territory in the East and South China Seas. Depending on how China defines IUU fishing, a key question here concerns how greater regulation (and reduction) of the DWF will impact the size of China’s fishing fleet in the East and South China Seas. Furthermore, could China use a counter-IUU fishing narrative against foreign-flagged fishing vessels from littoral states of the South China Sea operating within their EEZs or on the high seas, particularly when these cross over with China’s ‘nine-dash line’? It is unclear how counter-IUU fishing regulations in China will be fully implemented if vessel monitoring system data, for example, shows vessels to have operated in disputed territorial waters.

There is a second potential indirect impact of China cracking down on its DWF. Studies have implicated Taiwanese-flagged or registered fishing vessels in cases of human trafficking and forced labour, drug trafficking and IUU fishing worldwide. In 2015, the EU issued Taiwan with a yellow card in light of ‘serious shortcomings’ in the capture fisheries industry and is set to review this in September 2018. While Taiwan looks to have improved controls on its DWF, the second largest in the world behind China, Taiwanese  vessels are still running into trouble. The question is then whether China’s efforts to crack down on its DWF could impact Taiwanese fishers who run into trouble internationally, for example through repatriation to China, as part of Beijing’s counter-IUU fishing efforts and a ‘one China policy’. As Chinese pressure to restrict Taiwan’s international room for manoeuvre continues and new tactics are explored in Beijing, this is an area in which Taiwan could be challenged. Indeed, the deportation of Taiwanese suspects involved in telecommunication fraud cases to China for prosecution is not a new phenomenon. While these cases were slightly different as they were based on the fact that these telecom rings targeted victims in China, law enforcement cooperation between China and foreign countries could impact how cases involving Taiwanese nationals arrested for IUU fishing are dealt with.

None of this is to say that China should not be encouraged to better enforce against IUU fishing or be supported in its efforts to align with international standards. Nor is it to say that Taiwan, with the world’s second-largest DWF, should not be making stronger efforts to better IUU fishing in its fisheries industry if it wants to be seen as a responsible international actor. However, wider geopolitical implications should be borne in mind. Addressing Chinese DWF in far-flung corners of the world is a matter of great importance, but a question remains over whether and how counter-IUU fishing efforts could be used to achieve other geopolitical interests in Beijing – indeed, two of the most important ‘core interests’ of China are arguably those of territorial integrity and reunification with Taiwan. The practice of IUU fishing is a global challenge that requires a comprehensive response – but we must ensure that by tackling one important issue, we do not exacerbate others.

* Veerle Nouwens is a Research Fellow in RUSI’s International Security Studies team, where her research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and wider developments in the Asia-Pacific region.

** Cathy Haenlein is a Senior Research Fellow in RUSI’s National Security and Resilience Studies team, where her research focuses on serious and organised crime.

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