While countless gallons of digital ink have been spilled about China’s growing military might and “salami slicing” tactics that are changing the status-quo in the South China Sea, we rarely get to go behind the scenes, to understand up close the tactics and strategies Beijing is employing. However, thanks to a recent report in Reuters, we now know a little more about China’s stepped up efforts to alter conditions in the water. It may just end up that Beijing’s greatest weapon may not be its military—it might just be its fishing boats.
The report details at length China’s multi-pronged strategy to assert its maritime claims through fishing in various areas of the South China Sea that are in dispute—asserting claims not by “small-stick diplomacy” but now what we might call “fishing pole diplomacy.” Nothing says “sovereignty” more than doing the normal things a nation does in its own territory, like simple fishing. China’s strategy is in part genius, but also setting the stage for possibly violent confrontations with its South China Sea neighbors in the near term. This is of course on top of issuing maps that draw nine or ten-dash lines around the area and claiming it outright, putting oil rigs off rival claimants coastlines, as well as creating a world-class military with strong anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD) to deter a much more powerful adversary to stay out of the region in the event of a crisis.
According to the piece:
On China's southern Hainan Island, a fishing boat captain shows a Reuters reporter around his aging vessel. He has one high-tech piece of kit, however: a satellite navigation system that gives him a direct link to the Chinese coastguard should he run into bad weather or a Philippine or Vietnamese patrol ship when he's fishing in the disputed South China Sea.
By the end of last year, China's homegrown Beidou satellite system had been installed on more than 50,000 Chinese fishing boats, according to official media. On Hainan, China's gateway to the South China Sea, boat captains have paid no more than 10 percent of the cost. The government has paid the rest.
This is quite significant as Chinese fisherman can not only fish disputed waters with clear government support, but if they get in trouble have essentially a direct hotline to Beijing for help and are paying very little of the cost for such technology. In fact, according to a companion piece in Quartz, China has 695,555 fishing vessels, and while clearly not all would be able to venture out into disputed waters it stands to reason more vessels could be sailing into such territory in the near future.
The article goes on to note:
It's a sign of China's growing financial support for its fishermen as they head deeper into Southeast Asian waters in search of new fishing grounds as stocks thin out closer to home.
Hainan authorities encourage fishermen to sail to disputed areas, the captain and several other fishermen told Reuters during interviews in the sleepy port of Tanmen. Government fuel subsidies make the trips possible, they added.
That has put Chinese fishing boats - from privately owned craft to commercial trawlers belonging to publicly listed companies - on the frontlines of one of Asia's flashpoints.
The mention of declining fishing stocks is also of interest. While issues of nationalism, sea lines of communication carrying trillions of dollars worth of goods, as well as oil and natural gas are commonly mentioned in creating tensions, many times valuable fishing stocks are simply forgotten but are clearly driving Chinese as well as other nations territorial claims. Indeed, the piece makes mention of a study by China’s State Oceanic Administration that explained fishing stocks around the Chinese coast were in decline.
None of this should be any shock to those who have been keeping up with the latest developments in Asia’s Cauldron. For the last several years, China has been using various non-naval and non-military assets to push its claims in disputed regions. What make the above report of interest is the level of outright support China is giving its fishing industry to press its claims on behalf of the government, and how far they could press such claims:
Several fishermen from separate boats said the Hainan authorities encouraged fishing as far away as the Spratlys, roughly 1,100 km (670 miles) to the south.
The boat captain said he would head there as soon as his vessel underwent routine repairs.
"I've been there many times," said the captain, who like the other fishermen declined to be identified because he was worried about repercussions for discussing sensitive maritime issues with a foreign journalist.
Another fisherman, relaxing in a hammock on a boat loaded with giant clamshells from the Spratlys, said captains received fuel subsidies for each journey. For a 500 horsepower engine, a captain could get 2,000-3,000 yuan ($320-$480) a day, he said.
"The government tells us where to go and they pay fuel subsidies based on the engine size," said the fisherman.
Added one weather-beaten captain: "The authorities support fishing in the South China Sea to protect China's sovereignty."
Could China’s “fishing pole” diplomacy win the day in the South China Sea? We might just find out.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) serves as Managing Editor for the National Interest and as a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at the China Policy Institute. He formerly served as Editor of The Diplomat.
Image: Flickr/yvescosentino/CC by 2.0