Quad plan to tackle illegal fishing could become latest source of US-China tensions

  • The leaders of the security pact are set to announce details of the plan at their meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday
  • One US official says Chinese ships are behind most illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific but analysts warn of the risk of confrontation between coastguard ships

Fishing is expected to become a new front of contention between China and the United States as the leaders of the Quad group plan to unveil a new initiative aimed at curbing illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinese observers said the plan could compromise China’s maritime strength in the South China Sea and risked increasing tensions in the region.

US President Joe Biden will meet the other leaders of the Quad countries – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and newly elected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – in Tokyo on Tuesday when they are expected to announce details of the plan.

The initiative would use satellite technology to connect existing surveillance centres in Singapore, India and the Pacific to create a tracking system to monitor illegal fishing in the Indian and Pacific oceans, the Financial Times reported, citing an unnamed US official.

This would also allow the Quad countries to track illegal fishing activities even when fishing boats turned off their transponders, said the official, who alleged that Chinese fishing boats were responsible for 95 per cent of illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific.

“We’re going to provide a global capacity that will link the systems together to be able to track illegal shipping for the first time,” the official was quoted as saying.

Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs specialist at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said the latest initiative was likely to win support from Southeast Asian countries, particularly those that opposed China’s claims in the South China Sea.

“This is a part of the US strategy against China, which also meets the needs of the littoral countries in the South China Sea and will strengthen the maritime collaboration capability against China while weakening China’s strength in the waters.”

China’s fishing fleet, which includes privately owned vessels and commercial trawlers from state-owned companies, have been travelling further afield, seeking new fishing grounds in Southeast Asia, West Africa, South America and in the South Pacific as result of depleted fish stocks in Chinese waters.

But Chinese fleets have often been accused of defying international law to carry out illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, using prohibited equipment, capturing protected species such as turtles and seals and abusing migrant crews, according to a recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Their behaviour has been criticised by local fishermen and environmentalists and caused diplomatic rows with countries around the South China Sea but also as far away as Argentina, Palau and Sierra Leone.

It remains unclear how the Quad countries would deal with illegal fishing activities detected by the new tracking system, but Chen Xiangmiao, an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the new initiative would not just deal a blow to China’s fishing boats but also pave the way for further information-sharing among the four countries to counter China’s influence.

“It’s not common for countries to share such information among their law enforcement agencies,” Chen said. “That means, they could share not just information about fishing boats but also naval ships and coastguard vessels.”

Chen said the latest initiative would also be part of the US strategy to integrate its maritime forces, including the US Coast Guard, to counter China’s growing presence in the South China Sea and the South Pacific.

During a summit with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations earlier this month, Biden announced the future deployment of a US Coast Guard vessel to the region to help bolster its maritime security.

But while the Chinese and US navies are regulated by a non-binding code to manage their encounters and prevent tensions escalating, no such measures are in place for their respective coastguards.

Chen said that because coastguard vessels were often armed “any potential confrontations of coastguard vessels would be no less than between warships”.

“Will the US coastguard vessels resort to force if the Chinese fishing boats refuse to comply? And what would the US Coast Guard do when facing Chinese fishing boats and the Chinese coastguard?” Chen said.

“While there are many questions to be answered, one thing sure to raise concerns is that the encounters of coastguards will potentially intensify tensions in the region.”

Author: Laura Zhou, SCMP

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