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A Hong Kong oil tanker, the St. Johannis, in the dock at Falmouth in 2012. (Photo Credit: GeorgeAJMarshall)

A Hong Kong oil tanker, the St. Johannis, in the dock at Falmouth in 2012. (Photo Credit: GeorgeAJMarshall)

Earlier in 2014, I was in a Hanoi café, drinking the locally brewed beer with celebrated Vietnamese writer La Thanh Tung.  Nearby, the Song Hong river swept by.  It flows irregularly because of the large amount of silt it carries.  Rising in China, its deep and narrow gorge broadens into the river that feeds the fertile, densely populated Vietnamese delta. On a map, the river ends in Vietnam, and the South China Sea begins.

Tung speaks passionately about that sea, and the Vietnamese fisherman who depend upon it to feed their families.  Men have fished there since before recorded history.  Pollution, overfishing, and a dozen violent wars have diminished it, but still the boats return lying heavy in the water, hulls filled with tuna, mackerel, croaker and shrimp. Fifty per cent of the animal protein consumed in Southeast Asia comes from the huge ocean shelf off the Vietnamese coast.  La Thanh Tung slowly sips his beer and says, ‘I think the sea is large enough for fishermen to earn their livelihood.’

A mammoth Chinese oil rig was recently parked in these fishing grounds.  The international media – of which I am a member – is everywhere, its lenses focused on the maritime drama unfolding for Vietnamese fishermen.  I am surprised to learn that the Chinese occupied Vietnam for over a thousand years. They called it Annam, which means “pacified south.”  The protests and rioting on the coast, the Chinese warships protecting the rig, my very presence here – confirm the irony in the long-forgotten meaning of that name.

Earlier that week in Da Nang (known as “China Beach” by the Americans during the Vietnam War), and one of Vietnam’s major port cities, I interviewed Dang Van Nhan, a third-generation local fishing boat captain, who has been casting his long-line nets into the turbulent South China Sea for two decades. However, on May 26 of this year, dark political clouds suddenly came over his horizon, and his carefully maintained wooden fishing trawler was rammed and sunk by a Chinese naval vessel.

“We Don’t Want to Be Involved in Any Political Battles…”

Captain Nhan and other fishermen have always been aware of the perils of a seaman’s life.  Squalls capable of upending a trawler spring up quickly and a fast-moving typhoon can easily outrun a ship.  Their lives have always been at risk, but this monolithic rig and its heavily armed Chinese escorts pose a new and unfamiliar threat to their livelihood.

The China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) football-field-sized, 31 ton, $1 billion oil rig has arrived. Accompanied by a flotilla of warships, the rig, China’s latest territorial arsenal, has been strategically placed inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near the Paracel archipelago, claimed by both nations. The largely unpopulated Paracel Islands, administered by China but claimed by Vietnam, are the source of an increasingly aggressive territorial row between the two neighbours, fellow communists in principle but sharply divided by geopolitical aspirations.

The Da Nang fishermen nearly perished in the ramming, and now their voices are being drowned out in the increasingly strident diplomatic “noise” between Beijing, Hanoi, and Washington.

‘We don’t want to be involved in any political battles. My crew only wants to return to our ancestral fishing waters. It is our livelihood that is being taken from us,’ says Nhan.

Vietnam’s local fishermen are unwillingly cast as border guards, sent in their traditionally built and colourfully painted wooden trawlers with their frayed fishing nets, to help shape international legal claims, to establish national maritime rights, and to assert their nation’s sovereignty over its territory. Fishing remains a key national interest for Vietnam.

Sunset on the South China Sea off Mũi Né village on the south-east coast of Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Mike Russia / WikiMedia Commons)

Sunset on the South China Sea off Mũi Né village on the south-east coast of Vietnam. (Photo Credit: Mike Russia / WikiMedia Commons)

Their distinctive 50 to 60 foot fishing vessels, painted in hues of aqua blue and marine green, and trimmed in white, are easy to spot. Their bold upright bows expand out from a sharp cutwater at the waterline to high rounded sides at the sheer line, complete with fine high bulwarks protecting the working deck, and sweep in a graceful curve to their wide transom sterns. These well-built modern motor vessels, powered by four- or six-cylinder diesel engines, offer a pilot house and engine room cover well aft and a wide open work deck forward with at least three deep and capacious fish holds loaded with enough ice to last for five days or more at sea.

Vietnam’s wooden boats, however, are proving to be no match for China’s steel-hulled vessels in escalating territorial skirmishes. This was evident when I climbed an improvised wooden ladder to see, first hand, the damage inflicted on Captain Nhan’s boat. It had been salvaged following the sinking, and was now on display for foreign media in one of Da Nang’s boat yards. It was evident that the deep gouge inflicted by the steel-hulled Chinese boat on the fishing boat’s starboard side was the mortal wound that had sunk the once buoyant vessel.

The South China Sea has long been regarded as a major source of tension and instability in Asia. The current tense geopolitical standoff between China and Vietnam creates confusion for many observers, since both nations invoke both history and international law to justify their respective claims of sovereignty. What is clear is that the complex and deeply rooted history of these two nations is not entirely about the more prominently argued issues of atolls, oil rigs, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), freedom of navigation, military surveillance or unexplored vast oil and gas reserves. It is as much about access to fisheries as about any of these.

This is particularly telling since around 85 per cent of the world’s fishers are concentrated in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, a rise from 77 per cent in 1970, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. China has the largest number of fishermen, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. In total, at least 31 million people are engaged in the fisheries and aquaculture sector and related industries in the region.

Nowhere Else in the World Faces Greater Risk of Overfishing

While Washington’s focus has been largely on keeping the vital sea lanes open and encouraging all parties to settle this long standing territorial dispute in a peaceful manner, I found myself following the long lines and gill nets used by ordinary fishermen in these contested waters.

Within the disputed territory, there are more than 1.9 billion people, 77 per cent of them living within 100 kilometres of the coast. For the larger South China Sea, some 300 million people currently live in coastal areas, and this population is expected to double in the next three decades.

According to the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, the average annual haul of fish caught in this region tops nearly six million tons per year. Furthermore, China and Vietnam are among the world’s top five shrimp producers. The U.S. is one of the largest markets for frozen yellow fin tuna caught by Vietnamese fishermen. There are more than 500,000 full time Vietnamese fishermen in the coastal areas and 130,000 commercial wooden trawlers.

Schooling yellowfin tuna. (Photo Credit: OAR / National Undersea Research Program)

Schooling yellowfin tuna. (Photo Credit: OAR / National Undersea Research Program)

Because of this population, there is perhaps nowhere else in the world – considering the rich biodiversity and dependence on the once abundant and available fish species – where fisheries face greater overexploitation than in the area stretching from the Sulu-Celebes Sea to the South China Sea.

While policy shapers and governments continue to argue about territorial sovereignty, an increasing number of academics and environmentalists believe that fishermen from Vietnam, China, Cambodia, the Philippines and Japan are overexploiting the South China Sea.

One group of international environmental lawyers provides compelling evidence that Vietnamese and other fishermen have fished the East Sea or South China Sea since ancient times. Others subscribe to the view that fishing by private citizens does not create sovereignty over a piece of territory or justify a nation’s sovereignty over it merely because their fishermen or traders have used it in the past.

Hai Dang Vu, a doctoral student in international environmental law at Dalhousie University, Schulich School of Law in Halifax, Nova Scotia, argues persuasively in his book, Marine Protected Areas Network in the South China Sea: Charting a Course for Future Cooperation, that ‘Marine living resources in the SCS are over-exploited, accompanied by excessive by-catch, discards and waste due to the use of destructive fishing practices. Studies have shown that most of the conventional small pelagic fisheries reached full level of exploitation after 1987 at the SCS basin-wide level.’

The question that needs to be asked now is simple: Where have all the coastal fishes, like the tuna, yellow fin, big eye and skipjack gone?

The Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) characterizes the South China Sea as severely overfished, with excessive by-catch and discards, and destructive fishing practices, including cyanide, dynamite fishing and gill nets.

Dr. Nguyen Long, Deputy Director of the Research Institute of Marine Fisheries (RIMF) believes that ‘overexploitation of coastal resources is demonstrated by a decline in fish catches with specific declines in lobsters, abalone, scallops and squid.’

Growing disputes over fishing between China and other Southeast Asian claimants have added to the Chinese and Vietnamese frustration over the current situation in the South China Sea. Accounting for around 10 per cent of the world’s annual fishing catch, the South China Sea has been a historical fishing ground for both nations’ fishermen.

No one disputes that the South China Sea fisheries offers a cheap supply of food, a means of livelihood, and a source of foreign exchange. In addition, the sea’s nutrient-rich waters provide the habitat and spawning grounds for the world’s most valuable shrimp and tuna fisheries.

Yellowfin tuna loaded to truck for transportation. Palabuhanratu, West Java. (Photo: Wibowo Djatmiko)

Yellowfin tuna loaded to truck for transportation. Palabuhanratu, West Java. (Photo: Wibowo Djatmiko)

A large portion of the coastal workforce is dependent on the marine environment through employment in fishing, transport, recreation and tourism, and offshore exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon and other natural resources.

China Scales Up Its Aggression

In recent years, China’s assertive behaviour and increasingly frequent conflicts with other claimant nations over fishing in the disputed area have caused diplomatic tensions and sometimes heightened mutual public hostility. China and Vietnam have adopted concerted media campaigns amidst claims that fishermen have engaged in illegal fishing in areas surrounding the Paracel Islands, resulting in attacks, injuries and imprisonment.

‘Managing the fisheries of the South China Sea region is rendered immensely difficult by the non-cooperation of the various countries, which all compete by building their fishing effort. Moreover, the fishery catch statistics are largely driven by political imperatives, since they report ever-increasing catches, which have little to do with reality,’ says Dr. Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre.

The Paracels is an archipelago of over 30 islands, islets and reefs scattered across almost 16,000 square kilometres of ocean, and disputes over sovereignty have only served to exacerbate the bad blood between the two countries.

The provocative placement of China’s oil rig deep into the Vietnamese continental shelf and just 17 nautical miles from Tri Ton Island, demonstrates China’s strategic aim of dominance over the region’s fisheries. The recent positioning of four more Chinese oil rigs in the region adds measureable tension to the already tempestuous political waters.

‘The location of the oil rig is outside the Paracels Exclusive Economic Zone, and it has been placed there as a strategic weapon of foreign policy,’ claims Dr. Tran Troung Thuy, director of the Institute for East Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi.

The flash point issue is deliberately obscured by China’s less than transparent territorial boundary: the “nine-dash line,” first introduced in 1947 by the Chinese Nationalist government. It was then submitted by the People’s Republic to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2009, as a response to the Vietnamese-Malaysian joint submission for extending their maritime rights in the southern part of the South China Sea earlier that year.

China’s aggressive mapping of the region now includes a newly released 10-dash map, underscoring its ambition to claim over 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

‘Beijing has been careful not to clarify exactly what the line means because that ambiguity gives it significant room to manoeuver. The best explanation, as laid out by Chinese legal experts and academics, is that the nine-dash line only lays claim to the islands and adjacent waters within it, but also entitles China to undefined “historic rights” within all the remaining waters,’ according to Greg Poling, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Before China parked its giant oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981, in the disputed area, CNOCC’s chairman Wang Yilin claimed at its 2012 launching that ‘large-scale deep water rigs are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon.’

More than 86 Chinese ships, including three warships protecting the rig, reinforce that bold statement. This coercive rhetoric directed against its regional neighbours serves notice that the Middle Kingdom intends to extend its sovereignty well into the South China Sea.

Aerial photograph of the Crescent Group, Paracel Islands. (Photo Credit: Teofilo / WikiMedia Commons)

Aerial photograph of the Crescent Group, Paracel Islands. (Photo Credit: Teofilo / WikiMedia Commons)

‘The oil rigs as a “strategic weapon” can be perceived as China’s way of declaring sovereignty, displaying power and exploring marine resources in the disputed South China Sea, especially in the wake of Obama’s trip to the four Asian countries and the U.S.’s gesture of renewed commitment to the region,’ says Mengxiao Tang, a doctoral candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California.

China attempted to seize the Paracels in 1974, but was unsuccessful in its 1982 assertion, during the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea negotiations, that the archipelago was its territory.

Dr. Martin Murphy of Georgetown University believes that ‘if China’s blatant territorial moves go unchecked and its blue-water naval capability expands, it is likely that it will have the power to shift the international rules governing the maritime domain.’

The diplomatic hotlines between neighbouring countries that share the waters of the world’s largest commercial sea-lane remain heated. However, China shows no sign of backing down from the pressures imposed by the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and even the US. To this end, Chinese coast guard vessels continue to ram Vietnamese ships and attack them with water cannon.

In July 2014, Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a two-day conference about the South China Sea. Chu Shulong, a professor of political science and international relations from Tsinghua University adopted the Beijing party line and defensively shared with the many academics, policy shapers and reporters present, the view that China always follows the road of peaceful development and never seeks confrontation. However, he was sharp in his criticism of America. He bluntly claimed that it does not make sense for the US to accuse China of threatening the use of force or coercion when it is increasing its own military presence in the South China Sea. ‘What should we call this? It’s also threatening the use of force. It’s also coercion,’ repeated Chu.

Southeast Asian Fisheries Are Estimated to Have Declined by 25%

The drama at sea over access to oil and gas resources is coupled with both China and Vietnam’s over-exploitation of the fisheries, since their fishermen use long lines and gill nets. Certainly, China’s appetite is at least four times that of its neighbours and with its fisheries in a state of near collapse, the Chinese authorities are poised to assert their expansionist plans to seize an even greater share of the declining regional fish stocks.

Since the 1960s, the number of fish species in the South China Sea has markedly declined from 487 to 238. Excessive and unsustainable fishing practices, as well as land-based pollution, coral reef damage and other factors, have exacerbated the depletion of fisheries. It’s no surprise that policy experts are concerned about the implications of escalating tensions.

‘Over the past 40 years, it is estimated that fishery resources in Southeast Asia have been reduced to 25 per cent or less of their former levels,’ claims Dr. Ralph Emmers from the S. Rajaratham School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

Since the skirmishes between Vietnamese fishermen and Chinese coast guard vessels show no sign of easing off, these incidents in disputed waters will continue to be a cause of diplomatic tension and to provoke greater nationalistic sentiments.

The continuing clashes reinforce the view that fish is a strategic commodity to be protected and defended, by force if deemed necessary. Alan Dupont and Christopher G. Baker at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, argue that ‘Beijing is using its fishing and paramilitary fleets for geopolitical purposes in pursuing a strategy of “fish, protect, contest, and occupy”, to enforce its sovereignty and resource claims over contested islands and coerce other claimants into compliance with, and acceptance of, China’s position.’

In mid July, a Category 1 tropical storm barrelled towards the Philippines. The storm was upgraded to a 2 and then a 3. The storm, at first named Glenda, is given an international name, Rasmussen. Bobbing out on the horizon, small fishing boats from Vietnam and the Philippines disappear from view. The boats are mostly crewed by men.  Each deckhand is someone’s son; each vessel’s pilot is somebody’s father. Someone’s brother’s hands will burn from pulling on a net woven by someone’s mother.

The Chinese oil rig is 130 miles from the coast of Vietnam and cannot be seen from the shore. This oil rig and the deep waters beneath it have been in the quiet eye of an international storm for several months. Rasmussen, now a full-force typhoon, spares Manila much of its wrath, but leaves at least 50 dead. Several fishing boats and their crews are missing, presumed dead.

Rasmussen is soon classified a super-typhoon. Perhaps the most powerful storm in recorded history, it is now predicted to hit Southwest China, followed by a third landfall in Vietnam. But 33,000 feet above the Ukraine, Malaysian Air Flight 17 is reportedly struck by a Russian built SA-11 missile. Close to 300 passengers are presumed dead. Glenda – or Rasmussen – is no longer the story.

Over 3,000 miles from the wreckage, and even further from the media coverage, China oil rig HYSY 981 is leaving the South China Sea. Still protected by warships, powerful tugs are towing it safely away from the storm’s path.

Almost exactly where the oil rig was first moored and all the fury surrounding it began, the storm surrenders itself to the ocean. Downgraded quickly to a Category 1 storm, minimal damage is reported in China and Vietnam. No fishermen are reported lost or dead. The next morning, with no storm, rig or reporter in sight, the fishermen of Vietnam head out onto a quiet sea.

Captain Nhan and the fishermen of Vietnam have had a good haul this season. The real threat of the rig is to their right to fish these waters freely. Perhaps even to fish them at all.

The rig will be back. But for now, as is always the case after a storm, the fishing is good.

(This article originally appeared on Asia Literary Review. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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