Fishing For War

20 April 2015

In 2012, Beijing transformed a Soviet-era hulk into its first aircraft carrier, a major step in the country’s military build-up. Now, Chinese officials are confirming they won’t make any more trips to the old aircraft-carrier bazaar but are instead constructing a second naval behemoth themselves—and that more are likely to come.

This growing fleet naturally has American defense strategists worried. Their most pressing concern is how U.S. global powers will be constrained by China’s rising capabilities on the open seas­­­. But global security may hinge on a much quieter maritime challenge developing under the surface: control of the world’s fisheries.

According to Douglas J. McCauley, co-author of a landmark research report published earlier this year in the journal Science, the world’s oceans and its resources are on the verge of a “major extinction event.” Already, 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished or fully exploited. This is a big concern for China, which is currently facing a fish supply crisis because 30 percent of its fisheries have collapsed. To make matters worse, Beijing is expecting a sharp increase in demand because of soaring population growth in the coming decades.

Expanded Chinese naval capabilities may primarily be about challenging U.S. supremacy on the world’s oceans, but it is also about safeguarding the natural resources under the sea’s surface. To be sure, offshore oil reserves play a big part in this, but access to fisheries could also spark conflict between China and its neighbors. Indeed, tensions are already heating up over access to fish in China’s neighborhood. In the past decade, South Korea apprehended thousands of Chinese fishing vessels operating illegally in its waters. Illegal Chinese trawlers are also consistently caught in Indonesian, Philippine and Russian waters. Last fall, things almost came to blows between China and Japan after Tokyo denied 200 Chinese fishing boats shelter from an oncoming tycoon because the Japanese coast guard had spotted them poaching coral.

Tension in Northeast and Southeast Asia over access to fisheries is an early warning sign of the security implications that illegal fishing could have on future conflicts. Armed engagements between China and U.S. regional allies are not in Washington’s interest as America may be drawn into the fight (the U.S. has long-standing defense agreements with both Japan and South Korea).

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