China is a Threat to World’s Seas

China is a Threat to World’s Seas
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What you need to know

The high seas should be the world’s commons, but China is turning them into a wild west to be plundered.

Threats to national security take place out of sight on oceans, not just on land. Maritime boundaries, national waters, and global marine resources are often the target.

China’s fleets have been plundering the world’s oceans for decades. Their presence can be found in waters off the coasts of South Asia, South America, and Africa, beyond any nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In Beijing’s eyes, the oceans are theirs for the taking, but there hasn’t been any organized force preventing them from exploiting marine resources in unguarded waters, or those of countries unable to stop an invasion. 

In Africa, Sierra Leone is experiencing this firsthand. Industrial-sized Chinese trawlers have been trespassing in the waters of the poor nation, which is too underfunded to protect their fishing grounds. Fishermen in Sierra Leone say that about 40% of local industrial licenses are owned by Chinese vessels. “Though legal, locals say they pay meagre fees for their permits, under-declare their catch and add little to the local economy,” according to the Guardian. What’s worse, there are numerous unlicensed Chinese trawlers vacuuming up their waters of any and all fish, leaving them with ever-dwindling catches and exacerbating food insecurity. 

In the waters off  Pakistan, China’s key partner in the struggling Belt and Road Initiative, the same thing is happening. In the port city of Gwadar, massive protests erupted over a major development project that would endanger their fishing businesses. Pakistan’s government had considered military intervention before China temporarily suspended its trawling operations. 

In Argentina, hundreds of Chinese trawlers turned off the systems that tracked their location to pillage local waters, which caused the coast guard to open fire. Chinese fleets have been closing in on Ecuador’s famed Galapagos islands, even the protected area including the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Five years ago, Peruvian authorities impounded 8 million dead seahorses bound for China. It’s difficult to imagine the actual scale of devastation in these areas, but it’s almost certainly far greater than is known or acknowledged.

China’s action doesn’t stop at its doorsteps. An example is the deliberate destruction of coral reefs by Chinese fishermen in areas of the South China Sea close to the Philippines. In the meantime, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assess the ecological conditions of the disputed sea due to Chinese military buildup. China has dredged up more than 259 square kilometers of healthy coral reefs in the South China Sea to use as construction material for artificial islands. 

Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
In this April 21, 2017, file photo, an airstrip, structures, and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane of the Philippine Air Force.

China’s attitude seems to be based on zero-sum thinking, bringing tragic consequences for the ecosystem. In 2015, Chinese poachers were arrested by the Philippine coast guard with 350 dead sea turtles on their ship, and in 2013 a Chinese ship got stuck in the Tubbataha Reef protected area in Philippine waters.

Chinese fishermen have been illegally fishing in the maritime zones of Kiribati, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands and New Zealand, as well as  American Samoa , Guam, and Hawaii. They have also been found to be plundering red coral in Japan’s territorial seas. 

There are many other consequences to these actions, including food insecurity in mostly poor tropical nations. Another cost is slave labor aboard the Chinese vessels. Indonesian workers were found to have worked to death in deplorable conditions, which had led to the reappearance of diseases not seen since the time of Captain Cook. 

What can we do about all this? First, the coast guards of every coastal nation on the planet are going to have to expand their fleets and become much more aggressive and vigilant in fending off Chinese poaching vessels. Governments will also have to apply political pressure on Beijing to get the Chinese to back off.

It’s difficult to regulate the high seas beyond any country’s maritime boundaries. Oceans used to be natural protected areas prior to the invention of deep freezers installed in today’s vessels. But those days are long gone. And today the vast expanses of ocean are largely ripe for the picking, and judging from the shark fin hauls that Chinese vessels are pulling in, that sort of large-scale plunder is well under way.

The high seas should be the world’s commons, but China is turning them into a wild west to be plundered. The future of the world’s oceans — both in the nearby EEZ’s of sovereign nations and the vast expanses of oceans beyond — is appearing increasingly grim. 

Unfortunately, the ecological destruction of the world’s oceans by China’s hand is not even the endgame: near-total control is. That’s why Myanmar has leased China it’s Kokko (or Coco) Islands near Indian waters, why Sri Lanka has had to hand over a key port to China over unpaid debt, why China is pushing Thailand to allow it to build a canal to connect the Andaman Sea with the Gulf of Thailand

Therefore, it is not “just” ecological destruction and food security at issue here, though these are of existential importance. Control of the seas, control over who gets to pass through them, and control over everything in them, from fish, to oil fields, to military outposts, is at stake as well. Democratic nations with a keen interest in keeping shipping lanes free and fish stocks stable should reach out to smaller, poorer nations in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Oceania and find out what kind of assistance they need and provide it in a hurry if there is to a chance at stopping China from achieving its sinister goals. 

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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