China’s Growing Appetite for Fish and Fishing Disputes in the South China Sea

By Zhang Hongzhou

Tensions are rising in the South China Sea with Chinese fishermen being involved in maritime incidents. In this article, the author discusses how rather than the fishing militia policy of the government, the primary factor behind the rising incidents is the ongoing trend of the outward expansion of the China’s marine fishery sector.


Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, maritime incidents involving Chinese fishermen have increased over the past few years. Some of these incidents have sparked diplomatic and even security tensions between China and its neighbours. Mainstream media and a substantial body of academic literature attribute these fishing incidents and the growing presence of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters – particularly in the South China Sea – to China’s strategic and political motives, arguing that these fishermen are actually maritime militia who are positioned to conduct a “people’s war” at seas in any future conflicts. There is no secret that all the South China Sea claimant parties view their fishermen as important defenders of their respective claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Both China and Vietnam have a long tradition of militia forces, and have taken efforts to expand their maritime militia forces in the past few years. Nonetheless, the maritime militia narrative is overblown for three key reasons.

First, it’s important to take a step back and remember that incidents involving Chinese fishermen have occurred worldwide, not just in disputed waters in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea where China has an interest in strengthening its maritime claims. Similar incidents have taken place in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of South Korea, Russia, North Korea, Indonesia, Palau, Argentina, and South Africa. As a matter of fact, most of the fishing incidents involving Chinese fishermen take place in the Yellow Sea. It was reported that in the second half of 2014, over 29,600 Chinese fishing ships had illegally entered South Korea’s exclusive waters. Even in the South China Sea, fishing incidents involving Chinese fishermen do not only occur in the disputed waters of the Spratly Islands, but also in other parts of the region, such as in the waters near the Philippines’ Batanes archipelago and Taiwanese waters near the shore of Tongsha Island. All of this suggests that a primary factor behind rising numbers of incidents involving Chinese fishermen globally is the ongoing, outward expansion of China’s marine fishery sector in general. Faced with depleted traditional fishing grounds near China’s coast and excess capacity in the fishing industry, Chinese fishermen have ventured into new waters to stay in business.

Second, the maritime militia narrative is overly state-centric, and forgets that fishermen and local governments are individual decision-makers driven by self-interest as much as jingoism. Fishermen are primarily self-motivated economic players, driven by profit. In the case of the South China Sea, the government’s maritime militia policy certainly encourages Chinese fishermen to fish at the frontlines of maritime disputes. Just as large of a consideration, however, are three high-value marine species: giant clam, red coral and sea turtles. These species are generally found in shallow waters close to the disputed features in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the reach of the central state has always been limited in rural areas, particularly in coastal fishing villages. Under the country’s zoning regulations, distant-water fishing and fishing under bilateral agreements with foreign countries are both under the jurisdiction of the central government while offshore fishing and inshore fishing are under the jurisdiction of local governments. This is to say, fishery issues in the South China Sea are under the jurisdictions of Hainan provincial government, which is also interested in ensuring that the lucrative fishing industry continues to benefit the province and its fishing constituents.

Faced with depleted traditional fishing grounds near China’s coast and excess capacity in the fishing industry, Chinese fishermen have ventured into new waters to stay in business.

Third, while it is true that the Chinese government provides fishing fuel and ship construction subsidies to its fishermen, their genesis have little to do with the South China Sea disputes. The fishing fuel subsidy was introduced in 2006 as part of China’s overhaul of an agricultural subsidy aimed at boosting fishermen’s income and an effort to combat illegal fishing by squeezing “black ships” out of the market. The central government subsidy for upgrading and renovation of fishing vessels was introduced in 2012. This was also a nationwide policy and one of the key objectives was to phase out the very damaging bottom trawler, canvas stow-net fishing, and large single-ship light-luring purse-seiners. Furthermore, the special fishing fuel subsidy for fishing in the Spratly Islands was introduced in 1995, long before the South China Sea disputes emerged as a key security issue. The main objective of the subsidy was to cover a portion of fishermen’s excessive fuel costs for long-distance fishing. According to Article 3 (15, 17) of China’s Spratly Island Fishing Regulations, the fishermen are required to keep a reasonable distance away from the islands, reefs, and oil rigs controlled by foreign countries in the disputed areas and refrain from confrontational actions.

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About the Author

Zhang Hongzhou is a Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His main research interests include China and regional resources security (food, water and energy), China’s fishing policies and maritime security. His latest publications include the China’s Global Quest for Resources: Energy, Food and Water (Routledge, 2016, with Dr. Wu Fengshi). In addition, He has contributed over 20 papers to peer-reviewed journals including the Marine Policy, Pacific Review, WIREs Water, the Copenhagen Journal of Asia Studies, Harvard Asia Quarterly, the ISPI Analysis and Southeast Asia Studies, edited volumes, RSIS Working Paper Series and Policy Reports.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.