China-Somalia Fishing Deal Could Create a Surge in Pirate Attacks

China-Somalia Fishing Deal Could Create a Surge in Pirate Attacks
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

A fishing deal between China and the Somali government could prove disastrous for regional stability.

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Fish stocks are an important policy issue in China. The most recent five-year plan regarding fishing policy called for improving the quality of catches to improve profitability. However, environmental degradation and overfishing have reduced the quality and quantity of China’s fish stocks. While China works on dealing with its environmental and fishing management policies, it has decided to go elsewhere to secure quality fish: Somalia.

China signed a deal with the Somali central government for licenses to fish. If you know about marine life off the coast of Somalia, the deal seems like a good idea. Somalia has abundant fish stocks that contain tuna, lobster, and swordfish. With the exception of coastal communities, Somalis largely don’t eat fish, so competition is limited. If the deal seems too good to be true, it’s because it is.

If you know anything about Somali politics, you should know that this deal is a horrible idea.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Somali central government controls the capital of Mogadishu, and little else. Somaliland has effectively formed a breakaway state within Somalia’s border. It would be a state on its own if it received diplomatic recognition. Puntland, an autonomous region within Somalia, has also effectively broken away from the central government. Al Shabaab, a terrorist group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda, still operates within Somalia. They have carried out lethal terrorist attacks in Mogadishu in an effort to topple the government. Organized crime groups, including Al-Shabaab, continue to take hostages, extort businesses and villages, and engage in piracy. Somali piracy is a major reason why China’s deal is a bad idea.

According to Gary Wier’s case study of Somali piracy in “Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies,” Somali piracy started to become a significant issue when uncontrolled illegal fishing was occurring off Somalia’s coast. Local fishermen boarded ships and demanded compensation for illegal fishing. They acted as a “coast guard” due to the absence of a government. These fishermen eventually turned to piracy. It would not surprise me if this pattern repeated itself due to the weakness of Somalia’s government. Fishing boats make good targets for pirates because of their relative lack of speed, low likelihood of having readily accessible weapons or security, and the potential to take fishermen as hostages for financial gain.

If pirates do attack Chinese fishermen, China could bring along its navy. However, this could end up being very expensive and end up outweighing economic gains from fishing. The Chinese Navy would also end up pushing the political turmoil that resulted in piracy into Somalia.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Fishermen prepare fish from their vessels on the shores of the Gulf of Aden in Somalia's breakaway Puntland region.

If the deal that China cut includes the rights to fish off the coast of Puntland and Somaliland, it could be more problematic. The government of Somaliland does not recognize the Somali Central Government’s authority to act in regard to its territorial waters. If China insists on fishing in Somaliland and Puntland’s waters without their approval, it could push Somalia into civil war. There is already conflict between Puntland and Somaliland over territory. It’s not difficult to imagine that expanding due to conflicts over fishing rights due to the potential revenue from fishing.

If a civil war breaks out, China won’t be able to fish off the coast of Somalia. There will be nowhere to dock, resupply, or make repairs to boats. China will also have to work with the global community in peacefully resolving a civil war in order to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven.

With these potential problems in mind, China should back out of the deal it made with Somalia and keep its fishing boats far away from the Gulf of Aden.

Read Next: Chinese Piracy: A Crime of Desperation

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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