China’s fishermen are venturing further afield in search of their catch, and getting in trouble further from home. Following the detention last month of 36 Chinese fishermen by the Russians for illegal fishing for squid, two trawlers have been arrested by the Sri Lankan navy and the 37 Chinese crew on board accused of fishing without authority in Sri Lankan waters.
Unlike in the South China Sea there is no question of disputed waters. Yet the incident is tricky for both governments. Relations between the two have been getting closer in what is becoming another proxy diplomatic war for regional influence between Beijing and New Delhi. The island is strategically located in the Indian Ocean on the trade routes between East and Southeast Asia and Africa and the Gulf. Chinese built and financed roads, railways, airports, ports and power plants are already to be found in Sri Lanka. New Delhi and Washington fret that a military base may be next as Beijing looks to add to its so-called string of pearls, the modern-day equivalent of coaling stations for its growing blue-water navy. Illegal fishing is an awkward diversion.
Update: Peace has broken out. Sri Lanka’s navy says the fishermen have been handed over to Chinese diplomats. “The fault is not with the [Chinese] crew. The case is against the [Sri Lankan] owner [of the trawlers] now,” navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya tells the Reuters news agency.