Fishing Disputes Could Spark a South China Sea Crisis

By Keith Johnsonkeith Johnson / foreignpolicy.com / April 7, 2016

The simmering maritime disputes and land grabs in the South China Sea have long been seen as a battle over its potentially vast undersea deposits of oil and natural gas. That’s not quite true: There is a sometimes violent scramble for resources in the region, but it’s more a fight for fish than for oil.

Rivalries in the South China Sea are getting heated over a resource fight. But it’s more about fish than fuel

The latest evidence came Tuesday, when Indonesia blew up 23 fishing boats from Vietnam and Malaysia that it said were poaching in Indonesian waters. It wasn’t the first time Indonesia’s flamboyant, chain-smoking fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, has literally dynamited her way to international headlines: The country demolished 27 fishing boats in February and has scuttled more than 170 in the last two years.

But the move is significant all the same, because it underscores how central fishing is to the simmering territorial disputes that are turning the South China Sea into a potential global flash point — and how far countries are willing to go to defend their turf, or at least what they claim is theirs.

The maritime disputes between China and its neighbors over who controls what part of the South China Sea are increasingly coming to a head — not with bristling gunboats but with trawlers.

Large and growing fishing fleets in almost all the countries ringing the South China Sea are at the front lines over the fight to control tiny rocks with names like Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross, and Scarborough Shoal. Because there are festering and unresolved territorial disputes involving all countries in the region, seemingly innocent efforts by all parties to fish in traditional waters are sparking international showdowns, with potentially dangerous implications even for countries far away, including the United States.

Although not the root cause of disputes over sovereignty in the region, the clashes over fishing rights — which occur almost on a daily basis and often go unreported — pose the greatest potential risk of triggering a full-fledged crisis or even an armed conflict in the South China Sea.

Military commanders in Washington are worried about escalation, especially given recent U.S. efforts to enforce the area’s freedom of navigation by sailing Navy ships through disputed waters. Against the backdrop of rising friction over fishing, as well as other disputes, Washington has repeatedly appealed to China to back off its coercive moves in the region and warned Beijing against “militarization” of the South China Sea.

In a clear signal to China, the U.S. Defense Department has deployed 5,000 troops for a major military exercise with the Philippines this month. The drills, which got underway this week, include an amphibious landing on the Philippines coast and a mock assault on an oil rig, with a small contingent of Australian forces also participating. To add symbolic weight to the event, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will visit the Philippines next week to observe the Balikatan exercises. Read more…

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