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How Vietnam, Philippines Will Get around China’s Fishing Ban in Disputed Sea

FILE - A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches a Filipino fishing vessel off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Sept. 23, 2015.
FILE - A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches a Filipino fishing vessel off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Sept. 23, 2015.

Beijing has declared a moratorium on fishing in about half the heavily disputed South China Sea every year since 1995. And every year other countries with competing sovereignty claims keep letting their own fishing fleets do as they wish.

The Chinese coast guard says the ban that took effect May 1 this year will be enforced, but people who follow the South China Sea politics expect the authorities to catch only Chinese-registered boats that violate the ban.

China would go easier on boats from the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam because it wants to build relations in Asia and avoid a stronger U.S. role in the maritime dispute, those analysts believe. U.S. allies Taiwan and the Philippines call all or some of the moratorium tract their own. Vietnam makes a similar claim and has grown closer to Washington since 2016.

China is telling other countries about the three-month moratorium largely to remind them of its sovereignty claim, analysts say.

“To date, we haven’t really seen serious enforcement on their part, especially against other countries,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “The minimum, I think, is to create a record of supposed exercises of jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea.”

Annual moratorium

South China Sea waters above the 12th parallel north of the equator, along with other waterways under Chinese control, will be monitored 24 hours a day and “any violation will be dealt with in time,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the national coast guard.

Xinhua says the summer fishing ban will help “promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology.” The sea is considered heavily overfished, especially by vessels that can process and refrigerate their catches before reaching land, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, Southeast Asia-specialized fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea stretching from the island of Borneo north to Hong Kong yields 16.6 million tons of fish every year and the fishing industry employs about 3.7 million people across nationalities, according to National Geographic data. Claimant countries prize the sea as well for its marine shipping lanes and undersea reserves of gas and oil.

Harmonizing with China’s fishing bans

Other countries are accustomed to China’s annual moratoriums. In years past some have quietly told their own fishing fleets how to work the sea without upsetting China – though without renouncing sovereignty claims. That trend is expected to continue this year despite the threat of tough enforcement.

Taiwan notified its own vessels about the Chinese moratorium this year, said Shih Chin-yi, division chief under the Fisheries Agency. The agency cares about the regeneration of fisheries near its coastlines, including the South China Sea to its southwest, Shih said.

“We’ve also made notifications in the past to let fishermen know that during this period mainland China bans fishing as long it’s north of the 12th parallel into the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay,” Shih said.

China also claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, making any territorial dispute extra-sensitive. Each side normally observes sea boundaries set by the other, and Taiwan has its own moratorium zones.

Vietnam, the country most outspoken about China’s activity in the disputed sea, protested the moratorium on Sunday. A foreign ministry spokeswoman in Hanoi said the ban violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over the sea’s Paracel Islands and goes against United Nations maritime convention, according to the news website Hanoi Times.

The Philippines generally gives no formal advice to its fishing boats to avoid either inflaming China or conceding that China has a right to call a ban, political scholars in the country have said. The two countries have gotten along since 2016, with China reportedly accommodating some Filipino boats in disputed waters.

“I think they just live and let live and just hope they won’t be rammed or arrested,” said Chalermpalanupap, referring to ships from any country.

Neighbor relations, US role

Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea, but south of 12th parallel. All militarily weaker than Beijing, the Southeast Asian claimants resent China’s maritime landfill work and follow-up militarization since 2010. Island-building facilitates construction of aircraft hangars and radar systems as well as support for fishing and oil exploration.

Their resentment prompts the U.S. Navy to send ships regularly into the South China Sea, upsetting China. Washington claims no part of the sea. Beijing hopes to build relations with Asian governments to counter U.S. influence, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.

To build those ties, Beijing is talking now with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes four claimant states, about signing a South China Sea code of conduct as early as 2020 to help head off mishaps between ships.