Natuna Crisis: Is South China Sea a Fisheries Dispute?

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam, Research Intern, ICS

The recent crisis in the South China Sea erupted in December 2019, when a group of nearly 30 Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by the Chinese Coast Guards (CCG) intruded the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) of Indonesia around the Natuna Islands, a part of the sovereign rights guaranteed by the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS). China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, accompanied by its large fleet of fishing vessels and maritime militia, brings new challenges to the region and the sustainability of South China Sea.

South China Sea has been at the centre of dispute since China began asserting its sovereignty over the entire sea as part of its historical claim of the “nine-dash line”. This claim not only makes it an expansionist power but presents a challenge to the sovereignty of the neighbouring coastal states with overlapping jurisdiction (see the map below). The Natuna crisis and China’s aggressive postures has irked the eye of many ASEAN member states. Nevertheless, I would argue that the crisis presents not only a security threat for the neighbouring coastal states but also challenges the sustainability of the entire South China Sea ecosystem.

South China Sea Ecosystem

Source: South China Morning Post

The South China Sea dispute must be viewed from the perspective of fisheries development and the conflict for fishing grounds in the region.  A report by the Centre for Strategic International studies (CSIS) has shown that the region is dangerously overfished and over-capacitated with the fishing boats. For instance, the report cites a paradoxically worrying trend with South China Sea accounting for 12% of the global fisheries and more than 50% of the gross fishing boats of the world present in the region. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images captured by Asia Maritime Initiative depict this trend in the region (see image below). This shows that there is sheer overcapacity in the region in terms of fishing which has further led to aggressive behavioural tactics by countries involved in the South China Sea dispute.

SAR images

          Source: White Shipping Data, Asia Maritime Initiative

Tactics to intimidate the fishing community are adopted frequently by the CCG in the region to deter the non-Chinese fishers from fishing in the South China Sea region. Chinese fishermen, with the support of CCG and Chinese Navy, have also displayed aggressive behaviour in the cross-fishing activities in the disputed waters. One of their tactics includes ramming foreign boats and sinking them. For instance, a Filipino boat was sunk by the Chinese fishermen leaving 30 Filipino sailors at the mercy of others for rescue. Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Initiative describes this approach as a “constant exercise of low-intensity warfare”.

The Natuna crisis comes in the context of the departure of Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, whohas a strong track record of adopting tough policies on the protection of ocean ecosystem and the crackdown on illegal fishing activity in the Indonesian waters. With the departure of Susi, China is probably testing Indonesia’s ability to confront CCGs in the Natuna Sea. However, it is also aware that Indonesia stands as the fulcrum that connects the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it is seeking not to escalate the dispute further which can lead to a “crisis situation” in the region. Moreover, Indonesia has no conflicting claims in the South China Sea, unlike its neighbours.

China has for long claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea by arguing that “it is part of Chinese historic traditional fishing grounds” and expanded its naval presence through aggressive tactics. The Chinese Navy and the CCG are at the forefront by providing security and accompanying the Chinese fishing vessels, survey ships, and other mineral exploration activities in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, these activities are not confined to the “traditional fishing grounds” alone. Chinese ships have often crossed the established “nine-dash line” to either assert their control over fishing grounds by driving out foreign fishers or to test the neighbouring states’ potential and their capabilities in handling the crisis in a “matured” manner. Both the tactics are working in China’s favour to steadily extend its influence in the region.

Chinese activities in the South China Sea have expanded in the recent past with an expansive military build-up, transforming the “ecologically fragile coral reefs” into a military outpost in order to establish their continuous presence in the region as a strong naval power. The modernization of the Chinese Navy and the inclusion of the indigenously built aircraft carrier, “Shandong” is an example of China’s growing capabilities in the region and its quest to become a “naval superpower”. Nevertheless, the disrespect for international laws and non-compliance with international norms can have possible implications not just for the maritime security in the region but also severely affects the livelihood of fishing communities who are solely dependent upon the ocean resources. The data compiled on the marine fishery production in the region by the Pearson Institute of International Economics shows dangerous levels of fishing activity in the region (see graph below). The Chinese fisheries community along the coast, being overwhelming dependent on fishing as their sole occupation, has put China in a compelling position to venture into the extra-territorial waters of other countries.

Fishing activity in the region

    Source: Pearson Institute of International Economics

So, where are we heading towards in the South China Sea dispute? It seems, for the time being, China is trying to carve out its extra-territorial geographical expansion through a multi-prolonged strategy, with CCG and fisheries at the forefront of China’s expansionist agenda. However, the military escalation and the disturbance to the ecological fragility in the region may bring many livelihoods to standstill, ultimately affecting the region’s ecology and economy alike. This presents a long-term challenge to the region that risks human security at the cost of national security. Countries in the region and especially China, should be cognizant of the consequences that follow. Therefore, countries need to redefine the concept of security in the context of growing livelihood challenges.

Situating Labour in a Pandemic: Corona Virus Outbreak’s Social Costs

P.K.Anand, Research Associate, ICS

As the Chinese pick the pieces of the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, COVID -19, and the much-vaunted State capacity becoming frail, the pandemic has left more than a trail of dead in its wake. The direct or indirect impact on various segments of the polity, economy and society are being seriously felt and some of the cascading and ripple effects may be in the long-term.

The economic ill-health has significant bearing for not just China, but also for the rest of the world; in fact, the slowdown of the economy predates the outbreak with surge in inflation, and structural factors complicated by the trade war with the United States. While the Chinese had scaled down from high- to medium-term growth in early 2015, with reference to the term ‘New Normal’, the slowdown reflected that things had veered away from the expectations.

Much before the National Day last year, the surging prices of pork (a staple ingredient in Chinese food), along with other red flags on the economic front, had signalled life becoming harder in China. In fact, the pork prices have continued to rise amid shortages during the lockdown.

The ‘manufacturing centre of the world’ tag has taken a hit, as factories, enterprises and production units across China are either still closed or yet to restart completely, with cases of even an extension of the Lunar New Year holiday. Being the centre of automobile production in China, Wuhan has borne the maximum impact. Further, the ripple effects have in effect ceased production in automobile factories in South Korea and Japan, as closure of factories manufacturing auto parts in China.

The prospects of an extension of the economic recession also carry social costs, with significant consequences for labour in China. The travel of migrant workers — the fulcrum of the Chinese urban manufacturing story — at the onset of the new year from cities to their home provinces was often visually showcased with fascination over the years. While this masks the weaknesses of the regional economies within China by illustrating the inequalities between coastal and inland provinces, the movement also causes apprehension of spread of the virus.

The workers are also confronted with a dilemma while making decisions on returning to the workplaces — the need to make income by selling their labour versus (in)adequacies of health safety. More often than not, circumstances condition the workers to choose the former. The more days the things remain in limbo and cause disruptions including non-availability of transport for workers to reach workplaces, the more rise in workers’ anxieties.

The workers in manufacturing enterprises and their significance have always dominated the discourse on labour in China, and therefore, their absence through closure of workplaces and dilemmas do command news space. However, of equal, if not more, importance are the workers in the services sector — those in essential services such as sanitation workers, security guards, drivers and those on the low-end, not only in China but also in Hong Kong.

Along with them, hundreds of workers employed to power the platform/gig economy are also on the frontlines, especially food delivery workers. Even though extra precautions are exercised through usage of safety equipment, reporting the body temperature of employees to customers and quality checks, the food delivery workers are under added pressure in addition to the need to make deliveries in time, even though heralded as lifeline during the pandemic, and valourised for their selfless service.

However, dig a little deep, and the rosy picture starts turning bleak — workers for platform services are among the most vulnerable and precarious workforces in China without adequate workplace protection, or entitlements, and are also victims of accidents in the rush to ensure speedy deliveries and for customer satisfaction. Moreover, the rating-driven ecosystem where a high number of deliveries become the benchmark for evaluation, frustrations and alienation also set in.

Avowedly, China has national laws to regulate work contracts and to implement social security, but the translation of the same into action on the ground remains lopsided and inadequate. Precarity is intermingled within the system, as tough urban registration system called hukou, that segments and stratifies residents, renders migrant workers in the services sector to the margins, without access to services in the city where they reside.

The (in)capacity of the local-state to come up with problem-solving solutions to properly integrate the workers in the services sector also has echoes in India; even though there is cognisance of the prevalence of informal workforce in the urban system, adequate legal/formal inclusive measures are few and far between. This leaves them exposed to the vagaries of the market, which leads to the glorifying of their ‘resilience’ bringing forth a low-level equilibrium.

Undoubtedly, the social costs of a pandemic are in the long-term and therefore, the need to learn and unlearn.

Originally Published as Coronavirus exposes the brittleness of China’s economic prowess in Moneycontrol.com, 18 February 2020