On the March 23, 2016 an illegal Chinese-flagged fishing vessel, the Fu Yuan Yu 076, entered the Exclusive Economic Zone of China, crossing into the South China Sea across the famed Nine-Dash Line. The flagship of the Sea Shepherd fleet, the M/Y Steve Irwin, was pursuing the vessel for fishing using banned driftnets in the Indian Ocean. Right after the vessels crossed over, they were met by two Chinese warships steadily steaming south with the course set for the Spratly Islands. The vessels engaged in a conversation on the unusual nature of the chase by the conservation vessel but seemed reluctant to slow down and investigate the matter further.
They were in fact en route to show their strength in response to an incident involving the Indonesian navy and a few Chinese fishing vessels. Some shots had been fired, some vessels had been rammed and representatives of both sides of the government made strong statements on the infringement of their Exclusive Economic Zones. This incident was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, of the rising tensions between the South East Asian countries in the hotbed of maritime claims in the South China Sea.
In a ruling by the Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague, Chinese expansion, construction and claims in the South China Sea have been deemed illegal. When it comes specifically to the marine environment, the ruling has found that “China’s recent large scale land reclamation……has caused severe harm to the coral reef environment. The Tribunal also found that Chinese fishermen have engaged in the harvesting of endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea, using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment.”
As opinions and statements come pouring out from across the world, China has reiterated its stance that it will not accept the outcome of the ruling. In fact, China has even offered a conversation with the Philippines if the ruling can be left aside, such is the country’s regard for the ruling. On the other side, Philippines has maintained that the UN Court ruling be the final say in the matter, following which the countries should approach the issue with peace and diplomacy.
The outspoken Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, has been a vocal critic of China’s bullying tactics in the region. Her interest has largely been driven by the conflict between the fishermen along the Nine-Dash Line. While the 500-page ruling at the PAC was being read, she was in Rome opening the session at the Committee of Fisheries (COFI) meeting on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing. It will be interesting to see how Indonesia will proceed from here, given that the president of the country, Joko Widodo, recently held a meeting on a flotilla on naval ships at the edge of the Nine-Dash Line and reiterated the strong stance his minister publicly taken.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has issued a statement in response to the ruling, reminding the world on China’s stance on the matter. A pro-Beijing scholar has even called this ruling “a joke”, while an interesting piece by Tony Cartalucci in the New Eastern Outlook calls American interest in the region “an open, modern proclamation of imperialism” and offers a scary insight into why Beijing has long declared its plans to ignore the ruling.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was signed in 1982. The Maritime borders are drawn under this convention and in time this convention gave rise to the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA), under whose framework fishing is internationally regulated. Just last year, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) submitted an opinion in response to a Sub-regional Fisheries Committee (SRFC) query on the matter of flag-state jurisdiction and action in the matter of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, as well as the state responsibilities in ensuring the sustainable management of shared fish stocks.
The case between the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines has been ruled under the UNCLOS articles as well. 34 years after the UNCLOS was signed, it is evident that economic interests and historical claims continue to dominate the division of maritime borders. The future developments in the South China Sea will be of global concern, particularly with regards to regional stability and international diplomacy. What is perhaps more significant is the question mark this ruling and its aftermath casts on the ability of the world to share, protect and sustain global fish stocks. How China, America and Indonesia, three of the biggest fishing nations, deal with the imminent threat to the fish populations in areas of overlapping interest?
Siddharth Chakravarty has spent the last five years with the direct action group Sea Shepherd Global. His current work involves the study into the economic model of the fishing industry, investigating labour supply chains to bring to light the ethics of seafood consumption, and the effect of industrial fishing on the world’s oceans. Follow Sid @OceanBanter and Facebook.