How China’s fishermen are fighting a covert war in the South China Sea

By Simon Denyer / April 12, 2016/ washingtonpost.com

In the disputed waters of the South China Sea, fishermen are the wild card.China is using its vast fishing fleet as the advance guard to press its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, experts say. That is not only putting Beijing on a collision course with its Asian neighbors, but also introducing a degree of unpredictability that raises the risks of periodic crises.

In the past few weeks, tensions have flared with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam as Chinese fishermen, often backed up by coast guard vessels, have ventured far from their homeland and close to other nations’ coasts. They are just the latest conflicts in China’s long-running battle to expand its fishing grounds and simultaneously exert its maritime dominance.chinaMap2-01

“The Chinese authorities consider fishermen and fishing vessels important tools in expanding China’s presence and the country’s claims in the disputed waters,” said Zhang Hongzhou, an expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Fishermen are increasingly at the front line of the South China Sea disputes,” Zhang said, “and fishing incidents could trigger even bigger diplomatic and security tensions between China and regional countries.”Here, in the fishing port of Tanmen in the southern island of Hainan, 50-year-old captain Chen

Here, in the fishing port of Tanmen in the southern island of Hainan, 50-year-old captain Chen Yuguo was in the wheelhouse of his trawler last week, carrying out minor repairs after a six-week fishing trip to the disputed Spratly Islands.

A portrait of “Comrade” Mao Zedong hung in a place of honor behind him, alongside an expensive satellite navigation system supplied by the Chinese government. Chen said catches are much better in the Spratlys than in China’s depleted inshore waters, but the captain said he is also fulfilling his patriotic duty.

“It is our water,” he said, “but if we don’t fish there, how can we claim it is our territory?”

Experts say the battle for fisheries resources, an often overlooked destabilizing influence in the South China Sea, is a source of unpredictability, volatility and risk.

At the end of March, Malaysia’s maritime authorities spotted about 100 Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by a Chinese coast guard vessel, in its waters. They were close to Luconia Shoals, less than 100 nautical miles from Malaysian Borneo but 800 nautical miles from China’s southern island of Hainan.

Early this month, Vietnam seized a Chinese ship that it said was supplying fuel to Chinese fishing boats in its waters.

The biggest flare-up came on March 20, when Indonesian officials boarded a Chinese fishing vessel close to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands . As an Indonesian vessel began towing the boat to shore, a Chinese coast guard ship intervened to ram the fishing boat, pushing it back into the South China Sea — until the Indonesians released the tow line. Read more...

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