(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

The Chinese fishing fleet is a gigantic organisation. It is composed of a mind-numbing number of ships, “somewhere” between 2.600 and 17.000 distant-water fishing ships (M. Guttierez, A. Daniels, G. Jobbins, G. Guttierez Almazor, C. Montengro, China’s Distant Water Fleet, Scale, Impact and Governance, ODI, 2020).

These myriads of ships operate in Asian, African and South American waters. The multiple operations trigger a growing number of violent incidents at sea. They happen during aggressive encounters with other fleets or with the coast guards that try to protect their national fisheries (Ian Urbina, “How Expanding Chinese Fishing Fleet is Depleting the World’s Oceans”, Yale 360°, August17, 2020).

Numerous analysts and commentators are focusing on the dual, i.e. civil-military, dimension of the Chinese fishing fleet. They observe how fishing operations are also mixed with the “fishing militia”. The latter is one of the arms of the Chinese Navy (D. Grossman and L. Ma, “A short history of the Chinese fishing militia and what it may tell us”, Rand Corporation, April 6, 2020).

It transforms the Chinese fishing fleet, through its size and interconnectedness with the military into a formidable tool of maritime and geopolitical influence. As it happens, the Chinese fishing operations are often heavily imposing their presence in exclusive economic zones. These maritime actions result in “marking” marine stretches as being under China’s influence. This is especially true in the South China Sea (Grossman and Ma, ibid).

The mammoth size of this fishing fleet dwarfs the U.S., European and Japanese fleets (S. Yozell, A Shaver, Shining a Light: the Need for Transparency across Distant Water Fishing, The Stimson Centre, 2019). De facto, the Chinese fleet has a unique character because of its very scale. In comparison, the U.S. fishing fleet is only 300 distant-water ships strong. From a geopolitical point of view, this means that China’s distant-water fishing fleet operates at the global scale.

This begs a massive question: in a time of ocean depletion and acidification, what is the strategic meaning of such a national fishing force projection capability (Ugo Bardi, The Empty Sea: the Future of the Blue Economy, 2021)? In other terms, is the Chinese fishing fleet “simply” a tool of influence and economic development, or is it a signal of the coming “hunger wars”?

Projecting the power of need

The über scale of the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet is totally out of proportions with other fishing fleets. In 1983, China had only 13 distant-water ships. In 2016, The Chinese fleet represents almost 40% of the total activities of the 10 top distant-water fishing fleets. It captures 15,2 million tonnes of fish annually (Gutierrez et al., ibid).

Those are roughly equivalent to 20% of global catches, while China consumes 38% of the global fish production (which includes aquaculture products as well as foreign purchases).  This fleet also contains very different kinds of ships, from long liners to trawlers, squid jiggers, and many more (Yozell and Shaver, ibid).

The Emperor Fisherman

Top 10 distant-water fishing fleet Proportion of fishing effort
China37,99 %
Taiwan21,49 %
Japan10,06 %
South Korea9,96 %
Spain9,77 %
USA3,33 %
Vanuatu2,59 %
France1,90 %
Russia1,50 %
Others1,42 %
Source : Stimson Distant Water Fishing Fleet – (based on AIS data from Global Fisheries Watch, 2016-2017)

Seafood plays a basic role in Chinese food security, considering Chinese culinary tradition and economy. In the 1980s, Chinese citizens started becoming richer. So they can afford a greater culinary diversity. One of the consequences is that the Chinese people eat more than 35 kg of fish annually. By comparison, the average global consumption is of 18 kg (“The consumption of fish and fish products in the Asia-Pacific region based on household surveys”, FAO, December 2015).

The South China Sea plays a major role as far as the Chinese food security is concerned. An important proportion of the Chinese fish production is caught in the South China Sea. Its natural resources also include its fisheries, with consequences in terms of food security.

The South China Sea is one of the richest maritime ecological systems on Earth. One can find there more than 3.365 different fish species, very important reef areas, as well as giant clams (Rachaele Bale, “One the World’s biggest fisheries is on the verge of collapse”, National Geographic, August 29, 2016).

The militarization of fishing

These biological resources attract the fishing fleets of more than seven nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines. In this regard, China is notably developing a system of joint operability between its coast guard fleet and its 50.000 strong fishing fleet that mixes ships of all size, types and range. By contrast, the distant water fleet is composed of the boats able to navigate international distances.

This mixed armada is dubbed the “fishing militia” (Megha Rajagopalan, “China trains “fishing militia” to sail into disputed waters“, Reuters, April 30, 2016). It is quite difficult to know its exact number because numerous captains turn off their transponders, turning their ships into “stealth ships” (Christopher Pala, “China’s Monster Fleet”, Foreign Policy, November 30, 2020 and Ian Urbina, “The Deadly secret of China’s invisible Armada”, NBC News, July 22, 2020).

The depletion of the fisheries near the Chinese coast is driving the fishing fleet farther and farther away in the South China Sea. This often triggers incidents between ships of different countries, because of the aggressive practices of Chinese ships (Brad Lendon, “Beijing has a navy it doesn’t even admit exists, experts say. And it is swarming parts of the South China Sea“, CNN, April 13 2021).

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is strongly supporting the modernisation of the fleet. This is done through heavy subsidies and the replacement of old ships by new ones, with a steel hull. In the meantime, the owners can equip their vessels with Baidu systems, the Chinese global positioning system, which puts them in direct contact with the coast guard fleet (John Ruwitch, “Satellites and seafood: China keeps fishing fleet connected in disputed waters”, Reuters, 27 July 2014). Fishermen also receive basic military navy training, especially on manoeuvering (Ibid).

Sea power on the Anthropocene ocean

Hence, the scale of this leviathan of a fleet, vastly superior to any other competitor. This scale reveals its singular function. As it happens, it is a de facto extension of the enormous need that drives the economic and material development of the 1,4 billion people strong “Middle Kingdom”. In the 1980s, an emergent Chinese middle class of 300 million people started discovering consumerism, while hundreds of millions of Chinese escaped from the clutches of poverty and hunger.

Need as Power

In other words, the Chinese fishing fleet is a sea power instrument. It projects the mammoth Chinese “power of need” throughout the ocean. The Chinese “power of need” is the immense and permanent need for different kinds of resources and products. Those are necessary to answer the basic and developing needs of a giant country going through a triple cycle of economic growth, consumerism, and very rapid urbanisation (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, 2011).

This projection triggers numerous frictions and incidents when Chinese ships start operating in national maritime economic exclusive zones. Over the last years, those incidents have taken place not only in Filipino, North Korean and Vietnamese waters, but also in Cameroonese, Peruvian and Bolivian waters (Grossman and Ma, ibid). In Cameroon and Bolivia, the coast guards have arrested the entire crews of Chinese vessels for illegal fishing.

In Mozambique, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, the Chinese ships are dangerously overfishing and depleting the sea (“China’s fishing fleet plundering African waters”, Farming Portal, 4 January 2019). By doing so they deprive coastal communities of their food and income sources (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Somali Piracy: a model for tomorrow’s life in the Anthropocene?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 28 October, 2013).

The Chinese fishing fleet as a global power

The map of these tensions and incidents reveals that the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet is an actor that projects the Chinese power of seafood extraction at global level. However, there is a profound paradox at work with this singular Chinese power projection. Indeed, it aims at answering the exponentially growing Chinese demand for seafood. Between 1990 and 2010, the Chinese seafood consumption has been growing at a 6% annual rate. Consequently, China is responsible for 34% to 38% of the global fish consumption. This rate may grow by 30% by 2030 (Gutierez et al., ibid).

However, this fantastic fishing effort takes place on a warming, polluted and acidifying ocean. Indeed, as a matter of fact, the quickly heightening levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, among them CO2, which drive climate change, are also acidifying the seawater. (“Climate change indicators: Ocean Acidity“, U.S Environmental Protection Agency, 2021).

Dead zones

This process combines with the chemical and biological impacts of land industrial and agricultural pollution. This combination endangers the fisheries that are essential components of the food resources of entire maritime facades. These changes have direct geopolitical consequences. Indeed, they impact the most basic geophysical equilibrium upon which human societies and international relations are dependent. (Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization, a Maritime History of the World, 2013)

An example, among multiple others, is the Indian Ocean (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The warming ocean as planetary threat”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 2, 2018). There, a mammoth crisis may well be currently unfolding in the Western Indian Ocean rim. A study shows that an alarming loss of more than 30% of the phytoplankton in the western Indian Ocean took place over the last 16 years. (Koll Roxy and al., “A reduction in marine primary productivity driven by rapid warming over the tropical Indian Ocean”, AGU Publications, 19 January 2016).

This loss is most certainly due to the accelerated warming of the surface water, where the phytoplankton lives. This warming is blocking the mixing of the surface water with deeper and cooler subsurface waters, where the nutrients of the plankton – nitrates, phosphates and silicates – come from and remain blocked (K. S. Rajgopal, “Western Indian Ocean phytoplankton hit by warming”, The Hindu, 29 December 2015).

The Ocean and the shadow of the future

The problem is that plankton is the foundation for the whole ocean food chain (Callum Roberts, The Ocean of life, the fate of Man and the Sea, 2012). For example, in 2012, research unveiled a massive decline in the shoals of fish near the Kenyan and Somali coast. These declines were not solely the result of overfishing. They were also the consequences of the combination of overfishing with the loss of plankton. (David Michel and Russel Sticklor, “Plenty of fish in the sea? Food security in the Indian Ocean”, The Diplomat, 24 August 2012).

This trend is very likely to continue in the foreseeable future. The cause for this tendency is the warming of the ocean because of climate change (P. Beaumont and G. Readfearn, “Global heating supercharging Indian ocean climate system”, The Guardian, 19 November 2019). Thus, this evolution is going to alter the whole Indian Ocean. There is a growing risk that this biologically rich ocean may turn into an “ecological desert” (Amantha Perera, “Warmer Indian Ocean could be “ecological desert” scientists warn”, Reuters, 19 January 2016).

If we translate what is happening in the Indian Ocean elsewhere and apply to it the Chinese fleet’s operations, then we see that the giant Chinese fishing fleet is overexploiting the resources of a changing and rapidly depleting ocean. By so doing, the Chinese fleet also competes with other countries for access to food resources.

This changes the perspective on the Chinese fishing fleet as a medium of influence in terms of classical power games for dominant position.

Towards hunger wars on an empty ocean?

The singular strategic dimension of this fleet reveals itself through the state of tension that emerges from the current competition between the Chinese fleet and virtually all the other fishing fleets, as well as from its numerous infringement on economic exclusive zones. The final goal of the systematic confrontations created by this giant fleet is access to seafood on an emptying ocean.

From fishing to food security

This seafood is first for Chinese consumers. Then, it is to be sold on the international market by Chinese companies. Thus, it generates revenues for the development of China. In other terms, there is a growing Chinese and global demand for a rapidly shrinking resource (Charles Clover, The End of the Line, How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat, 2006 and Ian Urbina, The Outlaw Sea, Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier, 2019) .

Thus, the Chinese fleet is both an instrument of economic development, and of food security. Its goal is to ensure the constant and growing supply of seafood, i.e. of proteins, to mainland China, despite the competition and the state of the ocean.

This strategic goal explains why the Chinese fishing fleet is a civilian-military force. In other terms, the Chinese fleet is a food security force that possibly prepares China for maritime food resource wars, i.e. “hunger wars”, on a global scale.

High ground on an emptying ocean

It does so by prepositioning itself on the remaining biologically rich waters. In the same dynamic, Chinese food companies develop multiple infrastructures that secure Chinese access to those resources. Thus, they protect the whole fishing and processing process for themselves, despite the presence of other actors.

For example, Chinese distant-water fishing ships operate in the Gulf of Guinea. They are attracted by its biological abundance, while the riparian national coast guards capabilities of the different coastal states of Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon are vey weak. In the same time line, Chinese companies are currently building the Andoni fishing port and processing zone (Mark Godfrey, “Chinese overfishing threatens development of West Africa fishing sector”, SeaFoodSource, June 26, 2020).

This will allow the Chinese ships to sell directly their catches to the local Chinese industrial zone. There, they will be processed and sent to China or other destinations. Meanwhile, the Chinese investment and infrastructures building in Africa are so numerous that they turn China into a major power broker in these countries (Farming Portal, ibid) .

Preparing the Hunger Wars?

So, in the case of the Andoni facility, we see the emergence of a Chinese “seafood access security zone” that efficiently overcomes its local competitors through the convergence of the Chinese fishing militia, coastal operations and influence.

Through this example, we can observe how the Chinese prepositioning system of fishing and processing may become of strategic importance. This process may maintain seafood extraction by Chinese actors while ocean depletion accelerates during the coming years. This process drives the growing violence for access to seafood by non-Chinese actors against Chinese actors. However, Chinese actors are ready to defend their major share, especially through their global civil-military prepositioning.

For example, between 2015 and 2020, more than 500 North Korean ships have been found drifting and lifeless in the Japan sea by Japanese coast guards. The North Korean crews were nothing but skeletal corpses, dead because of starvation. As it happens, those ships were pushed aside from their fishing waters by waves after waves of Chinese squid fishing ships.

Those Chinese operations literally emptied the once squid abundant North Korean waters. This forced the North Korean crews to go farther and farther at sea, where they died. In other terms, if the “hunger wars” are still in the future, it appears that “marine hunger battles” are already ongoing. ( Ian Urbina, “The deadly secret of China’s invisible armada“, NBC News, July 22, 2020).

In other words, the way China is using its mammoth “fishing fleet and militia” may very well be a way to attain, as early as possible, the dominant position for the coming hunger wars on a rapidly emptying ocean.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington". View more posts

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