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.
The picture above shows two of the 30 vessels that comprise the largest fishing fleet dispatched from Hainan to Zhubi Reef, or Subi Reef, in the Spratly Islands (Nansha to China) in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The 3-story domed building in the background contains a newly installed radar station and a helipad. It towers over the old wharf that China built to establish its claim to the reef. Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan all say the reef lies within their territorial waters. The reef surrounds a lagoon and is above water only at low tide, which is why the building appears to be in the middle of the sea. The sharp eyed may detect the band of lighter blue looking water above the reef itself. The fleet is being protected by the Yuzheng 310, one of the most advanced patrol ships of the Chinese fishery administration.
The 20-day fishing mission is the latest display of assertion of sovereignty by Beijing in the South China Sea. It comes in the immediate wake of a meeting in Cambodia of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), also attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, that failed to reach consensus over how to deal with China over its territorial claims in those waters. Beijing successfully divided to conquer ASEAN on the issue, leaving its fishermen free to sail ahead (and its oil drillers to drill), further testing the diplomatic limits of the Philippines and Vietnam in particular.
Footnote: The new city that China is creating to administer its South China Sea specs of rock and reef is preparing to elect a 60-member city council and mayor later this year, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily.
China and the Philippines have said they will impose simultaneous temporary fishing bans in parts of the South China Sea. It is a way to diffuse their maritime stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China). While neither side recognizes the legitimacy of the other’s fishing ban in the waters they claim as its own, the arrangement allows both sides to withdraw their coast guard cutters on the grounds that there is no fisheries protection to be done.
Both sides say the fishing bans are for fisheries management reasons and have no connection to the naval stand-off that started more than a month back when a Philippines warship tried to detain a dozen Chinese fishing vessels operating in the disputed waters. While it is true that China has instituted a summer fishing ban every year since 1999–this year’s was first announced in January–the arrangement indicates that neither Beijing nor Manila want the increasingly tense dispute to get out of hand.
That is not to say that it will go away, or that the various parts of the Chinese government won’t stop blowing hot or cold on the issue. For the past three years Vietnamese fishermen have defied the ban, which also covers the fishing grounds near the Spratly Islands over which both China and Vietnam claim sovereignty. That prompted Chinese coast guards to detain the Vietnamese boats. China has again said it will impound the vessels and tackle of violators throughout the waters where it has suspended fishing. That provides China’s coast guard with an excuse to continue its patrols through waters variously claimed by not just by itself, Vietnam and the Philippines but also Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Updates: Vietnam has rejected China’s imposition of a seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea. Beijing and Tokyo are holding a first round of talks on their maritime dispute in the East China Sea. China is putting 4,000 islands to which it lays claim under real-time 3-D ariel surveillance, including 45 islands described as being “along baseline points of China’s territorial waters”. Meanwhile, North Korea has seized three Chinese trawlers in the Yellow Sea, apparently for ransom.
China and Vietnam are engaged in a new war of words over disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea. Twenty one Vietnamese fishermen have been detained since March 3 while working off the Paracel Islands (Xisha to the Chinese and Hoang Sa to the Vietnamese) which both countries claim. China says Vietnam’s government should halt the fishing off the Paracels to stop what Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei described as illegal fishing operations by “a large number of Vietnamese fishing ships”. Vietnam insists the fishermen were in Vietnamese waters and should be freed.
Beijing has been beefing up its naval presence in the South China Sea. The Maritime Surveillance Force conducted three times as many missions there last year as in 2008. As well as fishing boats, the vessels were looking for oil and gas drilling, activity off the Spratlys that Beijing also holds to be illegal in what it considers its waters.
As well as China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim sovereignty over often overlapping parts of the South China Sea. China’s claim is the largest, covering a big U-shape over most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers, straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East and below which are believed to be rich oil, gas and mineral deposits.
When in 2010 Japan’s Coast Guard seized a Chinese trawler, the Minjinyu 5179, in disputed waters of the East China Sea close to the islands Japanese call the Senkaku and Chinese the Diaoyu it caused a diplomatic row that bought relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a testy and very public low. Repeat incidents since have been dealt with more discretely. But now Japan’s Coast Guard is being given greater powers by the country’s parliament to seize or expel ‘suspicious’ vessels in its waters, including in disputed waters claimed by Japan, more discretion over the use of weapons in such incidents and fresh powers to interrogate suspects on land.
The legislation appears aimed directly at China and comes in the wake of other moves to bolster Japan’s Self-Defence Forces in response to Beijing’s perceived military build-up in the region. We shall be watching to see how Beijing chooses to react to the Coast Guard’s new powers as a bellwether of the current state of bilateral relations. A few days ago, a visit to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by Okinawa officials brought a swift complaint from Beijing while a group of Chinese activists attempted to sail there to protest against the Japanese visit.
Chinese trawlers fishing in South Korean waters have become commonplace. Violent clashes with South Korean coast guards are increasingly frequent. With hindsight, this weekend’s fatal fight at sea that left a South Korean coast guard captain dead and another wounded was sadly inevitable.
The coastguard reportedly died after being stabbed by the captain of the fishing vessel with a shard of glass from a broken wheelhouse window after the South Koreans had boarded the vessel. The captain and crew of eight were arrested after the struggle.
South Korea has seized more than 470 Chinese fishing vessels so far this year. Seoul’s patience with Beijing over stopping the fishing in its waters is running thin. Yet the incident is unlikely to provoke the same sort of diplomatic crisis that followed the ramming in disputed waters of a Japanese coast guard vessel last year by a Chinese fishing boat. Beijing’s response to Seoul has been conciliatory, not belligerent. Relations between Beijing and Seoul are on a firmer footing than those between Beijing and Tokyo. Whether that leads to a reining in of China’s fishing fleet from the crab- and anchovy-rich waters of the Yellow Sea is another matter.
Another trawler clash with a foreign coast guard patrol boat. This one fatal and, unlike the incident in September that turned relations with Japan acrimonious, not in disputed waters.
Reports say that a trawler rammed a South Korean coast guard vessel in an effort to help a fleet of some 50 trawlers fishing in South Korean waters off the southern South Korean city of Gunsan to flee back to Chinese waters. The fisherman and the coast guards came to blows before the ramming boat sank. Eight of its crew were rescued from the water but one later died. At least one more is reported missing. Chinese and South Korean rescue boats have been dispatched to the area.
Chinese trawlers are frequently detained for fishing illegally in the South Korean part of the Yellow Sea as they expand their fishing grounds — 300 a year, according to South Korean authorities. A South Korean coast guard died in a similar incident in 2008. There is no suggestion at this point that this latest incident was a deliberate testing of the limits of Beijing’s self-declared economic zone off its coast, and relations between Beijing and Seoul are on a sounder footing than those between Beijing and Toyko were last September, but the Yellow Sea is turning out to be dangerous waters in a multitude of respects.
China has released three of the four Japanese arrested at the height of the fishing trawler dispute and accused of entering a military facility in Hebei. Xinhua reports that the three admitted to having broken Chinese law. The fourth, Sada Takahashi, is still under investigation for videotaping military targets. He remains under house arrest. The four work for a Tokyo construction company which says said they had been preparing a bid to dispose of World War II-era chemical weapons.
The releases match the pattern of fishing trawler incident, with Japan having initially released the crew but keeping the captain under arrest. That incident brought Sino-Japanese relations to a low ebb and the manner in which China is dealing with these latest releases suggests that it is in no hurry to better them. If Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu’s latest comments are anything to go buy, Beijing sees the impetus being on Tokyo to improve them.
We updated our previous post on the Sino-Japanese trawler incident to note that Beijing had demanded a formal apology from Tokyo and compensation for the detention of the vessel’s captain, Zhan Qixiong, both demands for which Japan has rebuffed. The question now is whether this was a final piece of bluster on Beijing’s part or is it now over-playing its hand?
Japan has dropped the N-word in the increasingly intractable fishing trawler dispute with China. Japan’s chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, said officials “should be careful not to arouse narrow-minded extreme nationalism.” Though he stressed that was applicable not just to officials in China, it was clearly a barb at Beijing’s hard line in the dispute.
Within hours, the Chinese foreign ministry said a meeting between Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in New York this week would be “inappropriate”. (Update: Wen has subsequently reinforced China’s hard line: “If Japan clings to its mistake, China will take further actions and the Japanese side shall bear all the consequences that arise,” he said in New York ahead of the U.N. meetings.)
Beijing has already suspended high-level exchanges with Japan and taken a range of other retaliatory moves following a Japanese court ruling over the weekend that the captain of the Chinese fishing vessel, Minjinyu 5179, alleged to have collided with Japanese coast guard ships on September 7 could be detained for an extra ten days while Japanese prosecutors decide whether to bring charges.
As we have noted before, Beijing has acted aggressively to avow its territorial claim to the disputed waters of the East China Sea around what Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China the Diaoyu islands, ratcheting up the pressure on Tokyo to back off bringing charges against the trawler’s captain under Japanese law. While Tokyo has sought to defuse the incident, it has shown no sign of backing down in the face of Beijing’s browbeating; if anything the Japanese Cabinet Secretary’s comments suggest Tokyo’s resolve is firming. This is becoming an increasingly high-stakes game of diplomatic chicken.
There would a high political cost for Japan’s still relatively new prime minister were he to buckle under pressure from Beijing the first time he was tested. There is some irony in the fact that Prime Minister Kan’s governing DPJ supports a foreign policy that is more Asia focused and more independent of the U.S. Relations with China have been improving since 2006, but as this latest incident shows, it doesn’t take much to scratch open the underlying nerves of distrust. Other countries in the region who have disputed maritime borders with China will be looking on with some concern, and considering if tighter security relations with the U.S. might not offer them some insurance against similar treatment.