Tensions over Fishing Rights in the South China Sea

This April, the Philippines had one of their warships locked in a stand-off over fishing rights with two Chinese surveillance vessels at Scarborough Shoal, in waters claimed both by China and the Philippines. In May, an impressive fleet of 70 Chinese vessels was deployed there to protect four Chinese fishing boats. These latest incidents exemplify the intensifying territorial and resource-related tensions in the South China Sea.

Regional fish resources account for as much as one tenth of the global catch and hence make up a multi-billion-dollar industry, which is of vital interest for neighboring economies such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The dispute is not just about fish, of course; it is also and foremost a question of sovereignty over what constitutes one of the most important shipping lanes worldwide and what is regarded as waters rich in deep-sea fossil fuels and seabed minerals. In this context, fishermen are increasingly being used as “civilian instruments of power that help stake out legal claims and establish national maritime rights”, Patrick Cronin concluded in his testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission this January. China avoids military presence at sea, but pushes its claims with actions such as a recently instituted fishing ban that conflicts with the fishing rights of neighboring countries. Despite these tensions, most neighboring countries have been reluctant to raise open criticism because they do not wish to jeopardize economic relations with China. This notion also set the stage for the last IISS Asia Security Summit (“Shangri-La Dialogue”) in June, where, remarkably, China's Defense Minister was absent.

A recent report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) advocates U.S. neutrality, while emphasizing the need for increased military and technological involvement. China has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. involvement in the dispute, while politicians from Vietnam and the Philippines demand increased U.S. engagement to counter what they perceive as an ever more assertive China. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently proclaimed “America’s Pacific Century”. Following this strategic focus, the U.S. has supported efforts to resolve the dispute and to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, urging states to settle disputes through means of multilateral diplomacy, for which the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) would provide a good forum for dialogue, and in accordance with international law, particularly the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Indeed, this could be a pathway towards resolving the conflicts of interest in the South China Sea, and one that might hence also ensure more sustainable fishing with an equitable distribution of benefits.