Thayer South China Sea: China’s Fishing Armada Sets Sail | South China Sea | Exclusive Economic Zone

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Background Brief: South China Sea: China’s Armada of Fishermen Set Sail Carlyle A. Thayer August 3, 2012

[client name deleted] Q1. China has just sent tens of thousands of fishing ships to the South China Sea. Do you think this action will lead to escalation of tension and clashes? ANSWER: China is disregarding a fundamental tenet of UNCLOS that enjoins nations to cooperate to protect maritime resources. The fish stocks in the South China Sea have been dwindling due to over fishing and marine pollution. Chinese fishermen have been equipped by the Chinese government and encouraged by the Chinese government to push further south to acquire fish. This inevitably will be at the expense of the Philippines and Vietnam and threaten not only their fishing industry but food security. There is no question that Chinese fishermen have the right to fish on the high seas. But the flooding of the South China Sea with thousands of fishing boats will cause clashes and make tensions rise when they intrude in waters that Vietnam and the Philippines consider part of their Exclusive Economic Zones. We already know that China believes its 9-dash line trumps international law and it will disregard the right to sovereign jurisdiction by the Philippines and Vietnam. China will also send paramilitary surveillance and fishery enforcement vessels to intimidate Vietnam’s Maritime Police and the Philippines’ Coast Guard. Q2. Is it one of China's strategic steps to claim the whole South China Sea? ANSWER: China’s actions are being undertaken to support its claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. If China can overwhelm the Philippines and Vietnam through sheer numbers of fishing vessels this year and next and the year after, it will gradually establish its claim over the fishing resources. Next China will bring in oil rigs to occupy disputed waters to gain control over the hydro carbons beneath the sea bed. Q3. What should countries like Vietnam and the Philippines do? ANSWER: Vietnam and the Philippines must be absolutely certain that their Exclusive Economic Zones conform to the letter and spirit of international law. Vietnam has a weak case in the waters off its southeast coast which are likened to a “pregnant lady.” The base lines are exaggerated giving rise to a claim to more waters than Vietnam is entitled to. This creates a vulnerability for Vietnam if China intrudes into this area. Both Vietnam and the Philippines must maintain the best surveillance possible over their EEZs and report all incidents of intrusion and violation of their

2 sovereign jurisdiction. Under UNCLOS a state has sovereign jurisdiction to the fisheries within its EEZ. They have the right to exclude foreign fishing vessels. Both Vietnam and the Philippines need to provide graphic documentation of violations of their EEZs and incidents through videos and cameras. Vietnam and the Philippines need to develop risk mitigation strategies for their fishing fleets and their respective Maritime Police and Coast Guard when they encounter Chinese fishing boats and Chinese paramilitary vessels. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have to develop effective non-violent tactics to deal with intrusions. Special tactics must be designed to deal with Chinese intimidation within their EEZs. All Chinese incidents that violate international law must be raised with China at diplomatic level and in all appropriate multilateral forums. Both countries should be prepared to take their case to the next round of ASEAN and related meetings in Phnom Penh in November. On the diplomatic front Vietnam and the Philippines need to push for a joint fisheries management authority under the DOC to ensure that the fish stock in the South China Sea is not depleted. Over the longer-term both the Philippines and Vietnam need to build up the capacity of their respective Coast Guard and Maritime Police.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: China’s Armada of Fishermen Set Sail,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 3, 2012. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived and may be accessed at:

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