When a state projects its overwhelming military might against another state in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, it’s called gunboat diplomacy. But when a state uses not the traditional military warships and jets but a supposedly harmless flotilla of civilian fishing crafts, it’s a fishing boat aggression.
In the Scarborough Shoal, it was the encroachment of Chinese fishing boats into the Philippine Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which prompted a reaction from Manila, that led to the current tensions between the Philippines and China. The role of these private Chinese fishing boats in the escalation of tension in disputed areas is indicative of the new pattern being employed by China in asserting its claims.
In 2010, a Chinese fisherman rammed his boat on a Japanese Coast Guard ship on the waters around the Senkaku Islands, causing a row between China and Japan. In 2011, on the other hand, Chinese fishing boats inflicted damages to oil exploration activities in Vietnam’s EEZ.
This is how Beijing’s fishing boat aggression works: Purportedly Chinese civilian boats will venture into the other country’s EEZ. When patrol boats of that country try to apprehend them, maritime patrol vessels from China’s Fisheries Bureau (under the Ministry of Agriculture) will suddenly appear to secure the Chinese boats, often resulting in a stalemate. China would then reiterate its so-called “inalienable right” to the disputed waters, and insist on a bilateral negotiation to resolve the stand-off.
As the stand-off drags, China would then flare up domestic nationalist sentiments by demonizing the rival claimants, like Japan and the Philippines, through its controlled media. This is then followed by economic pressures like the restriction of rare earth exports to Japan in 2010, the cancellation of tourist travels to the Philippines, and the dumping of Philippine banana exports in China. Finally, China would rattle its saber by making bold pronouncements of its willingness and capability to defend its territory militarily, just as it dismisses suggestions to resolve the disputes through mechanisms under international law. Meanwhile, Chinese fishing boats continue their activities, ignoring all protestations.
Obviously, China is employing this new strategy for two reasons. Firstly, Beijing wants to show that the disputed waters are indeed traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen, in order to buttress its “historical claims” to the said maritime territories. Secondly, by using vessels from the Fisheries Bureau instead of, say, the Coast Guard, the Chinese side is trying to dodge accusations of aggressiveness by characterizing its activities in the area as being civilian in nature.
We have to acknowledge that the Chinese fishermen believe their government’s claims that the disputed waters are really Chinese territory, of course. But it cannot be denied that these fishermen know the danger of venturing into those disputed waters. Without the Fisheries Bureau’s backing, it’s less likely for these Chinese fishermen to risk chartering through these disputed waters. In other words, the boldness of the fishing boats to rummage the disputed waters stems from the protection given by the Fisheries Bureau.
Are these Chinese fishermen merely engaging in private economic expedition, or are they playing accomplice to China’s assertive policies in the disputed waters? It’s difficult to tell. But what’s apparent is that the weight of pressure that China employs whenever stalemates arise due to these fishing boats is indicative of the aggressive nature of Beijing’s South China Sea policy.
Clearly, Beijing is using these supposedly private fishing boats as a tool to advance its claims in the disputed waters. This fishing boat aggression is here to stay, and China’s rival claimants should know how to deal with it.
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