Dine with locals in East or Southeast Asia, and chances are that you will be treated to at least one dish of fish or seafood. Such dishes are considered healthy, refined and even auspicious in China, where the word fish (yu) is a homonym for “surplus.” Of the top 20 fish-eating countries, half are in Asia, according to a 2010 University of British Columbia study. China is the number one consumer of fish, eating 13.6 million metric tons a year.
As in many parts of the world, this appetite puts pressure on Asia’s fishermen to deplete their local waters. With coastal fisheries growing sparse, fishermen are venturing deeper into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. There they are able to fill their boats, but they may unwittingly drag in an international conflict with their catch.
Fish, quite a dish
Before global trade and oil, the South China Sea’s original economic boon was fishing. Today, the area accounts for 10% of the annual global catch, according to an International Crisis Group report.
Whether as a means to promote economic growth or a veiled bid to assert sovereignty, both China and Vietnam are encouraging fishermen to venture further into the sea. China has offered fishermen equipment upgrades, including satellite navigation, while as of 2008 Vietnam offered a US$3,500 annual subsidy to fisherman buying motors large enough to reach deeper waters, according to ICG.
It should come as no surprise then that high-profile encounters between fishing boats and patrol vessels of rival countries are on the rise. Chinese fishing boats had more than 750 run-ins with “foreign nations” between 1989 and 2010, according to Chinese government data. In one extreme encounter in April, Philippine naval vessels attempted to detain Chinese fishermen on charges of illegal fishing in disputed waters near the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese law enforcement ships intervened to protect the fishermen, leading to a two-month standoff which only ended with typhoon season.
With so many conflicts occurring, the likelihood has increased that one could turn violent. Beijing can easily tell its few large oil companies what to do, but it has much more difficulty controlling the thousands of fishing boats that ply the South China Sea each day, said Damien Ma, an analyst at research firm Eurasia Group. Whether these run-ins are intentional or accidental may not matter, said Ma. “Each of the countries that is involved can easily play [an encounter] off any way they want to their domestic audience. And that could quickly escalate and that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
While oil and gas in the sea steals headlines, Asia’s seemingly innocuous love of fish may be the likeliest source of conflict in the South China Sea. As Meat Loaf sang, “I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” Those attempting to preserve stability should hope that rival claimants exercise similar restraint.