"China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world." Napoléon Bonaparte, at St Helena Island 1816
NGÔ THẾ VINH
To the Friends of the Mekong
Picture 1: Chinese trawler that can scour the ocean floor: those mega trawlers equipped with driftnets are roaming offshore the coast of West Africa and other places to carry out illegal search and destroy fishing and depleting our planet’s resources. [source: India Live Today, July 8, 2016]
THE PEOPLE REPUBLIC OF CHINA DEPLETING THE FISH STOCKS OF THE WORLD
The time the oceans were still teeming with fish, life was good and plentiful for the fishermen. However, as it now stands, fishermen in West Africa like Guinea, Senegal, on the opposite side of the globe, are complaining that the nets they reel in were almost empty. (1,2)
Meanwhile, in eastern China, Zhu Delong, 75, shook his head looking at the few tiny fish and red shrimps in his net. He reminisced: "When I was a kid, you could cast a line out your back door and hook huge yellow croackers. Now the sea is empty.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that due to over fisfhing, the world’s fish stocks are approaching the point of near total depletion. In all the earth’s oceans, the search and destroy method of fishing - done mostly by China’s fishing fleets - had a direct impact on the livelihood of the millions of fishermen in poor nations whose food and main source of income are derived from the sea.
Picture 2: The number of China’s fishing fleet continues to grow without pause and their fraudulent catches become more frequent day and night along the coast of West Africa. [source: Greenpeace Africa 20.05.2015]
Picture 3: With its fleet of over 2,600 large ships, China’s presence can be felt everywhere: the East Sea, Australia, Indian Ocean, West Africa and South America. China is proclaimed the "King of the Sea" [source: The NYT 04.30.2017]
With a population of almost 1,4 billion – or 1/5 that of the world - today’s China no longer suffers from food penury thanks to its fairly developed economy. The rising income of the Chinese allows them to develop a taste for good eating and sea food has become their favorite choice. To meet that demand, China has built a fleet of large iron fishing vessels, designed not only for the catch but also for para military purposes i.e. to patrol the sea. The Chinese government provides its fishermen with money to build their boats; buy the navigational equipment, fuel and even refrigeration facilities in order to preserve the catches during their weeks-long distant trips to West Africa and South America. Furthermore, those fishing flotillas also receive the protection of the Chinese Navy’s gunships.
To the leaders in Beijing, those fishing fleets represent an instrument of power they can use to assert their country’s sovereignty over the maritime territories currently under dispute in the East Sea. The administrators of Hainan Province never tire of encouraging their fishermen to sail to the Paracel islands that belong to Vietnam or to the Spratly islands that are contested by both the Philippines and Vietnam to show their nation’s flag.
Most worrisome of all are the activities of the Chinese trawlers equipped with driftnets that can drop miles-long nets capable of reaching down and scour the seafloor to catch all the marine lives including corals and oyster beds. When returned to the sea afterwards, about 90% of them cannot survive. The use of those trailers has already been banned in many countries on account of their extensive nefarious impacts on the overall eco-system of the oceans. Ironically, on its part, China is pushing their use to the maximum. [Picture 1]
The almost depleted fish stocks in China’s sea prompt the Chinese government to encourage its fishing fleets to venture into faraway waters of other countries to fish.
They are not only content to roam freely in the East Sea but sail half way around the globe to West Africa and as far as to South America. [Picture 2, 3]
According to a research conducted by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, in the 2011-2015 period, the Chinese fishing industries received a total subsidy of US$ 22 billion from its government – a threefold increase compared to the previous 4 years.
The Chinese distant-water fishing vessels number 2,600 (10 times those of the United States). In the case of Senegal, in a week, those mega ships can haul in the equivalent of what the local fishermen catch during an entire year.
As far as the world’s fisheries are concerned, China is the “king of the sea”. This country leads the world in the export of marine food. The Chinese consume 1/3 of their catch while exporting the remainder. The sea food industry employs 14 million Chinese.
In reality, what is known as traditional fishing in the waters bordering China only exists in name only. “For China’s leaders, ensuring a steady supply of aquatic products is not just about good economics but social stability and political legitimacy” remarked Mr. Zhang Hongzhou of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
CHINA, THE ROBBER OF POOR PEOPLE LIVELIHOOD
It would be advisable that we take some time to help our young people who grew up overseas understand the meaning of the Vietnamese idiom "cướp cơm chim." It refers to the act of the rich or powerful who stoop so low as taking away the little food on which the poor and powerless depend on for their subsistence. This is the exact image the Chinese fishing fleets project when they illegally carry on their trade and steal the livelihood of the poor fishermen all over the world.
Senegal, the typical image of a poor country in West Africa, has a population of 14 million, a 300-mile long seacoast, and fish stocks that are its lifeline. That lifeline is being relentlessly depleted by China. (1)
How can we expect the local fishermen sailing on flimsy wooden pirogues confront the iron mammoths of the Chinese flotillas that can deploy miles-long nets? [Pictures 1,4] It’s no surprise then that the already destitute Senegalese can no longer depend on the sea for food and a living income.
Alassane Samba, former director of Senegal’s Oceanic Research Institute offers this observation: “We are facing an unprecedented crisis. If things keep going the way they are, people will have to eat jellyfish to survive.” (1)
The World Bank reported that fishery not only provides the protein source for the Senegalese but also accounts for a significant segment of that country’s export revenue. In addition, this sector offers work to as much as 20% of the national work force.
In the old days, fishermen frequently caught large groupers and tunas. Now, they have to compete fiercely with each other just to haul in tiny sardines. The Senegalese have to brave dangers and venture into the high seas on wooden vessels to fish. On top of the uncertainties posed by the weather, they may encounter big bands of Chinese super trawlers that can ram and sink them. As a result, they have to be content with their catches of tiny fish while facing a hopeless future.
Furthermore, droughts caused by climate change force hundreds of thousands to migrate from the countryside to the coasts to make a living. Consequently, the country becomes more dependent on the sea at the time when its resources are on the verge of being depleted.
The waves of immigration to the coasts have transformed the small fishing village of Joal with a few fishing boats into a sprowling city of 55,000 souls and 4,900 wooden pirogues. Abdou Karim Sall, president of the local fishermen association, was considered a hero when he single-handedly detained the captains of two Chinese boats that were poaching offshore from Senegalese’s coast. He stated: "We always thought that sea life was boundless. Now, we are facing a catastrophe."
The increasingly dire conditions of life have turned them into reluctant economic refugees flooding into the countries of Europe. Moustapha Balde, 22, whose teenage cousin drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean, stated: "Foreigners complain about Africa migrants coming to their countries, but they (referring to the Chinese) have no problem coming to our waters and steal all our fish.”
Dyhia Belhabib, a fisheries expert, attempted to put a dollar figure on the illegal fishing along the coastlines of West Africa. In her eyes, the worst offenders are the Chinese. Within Senegalese waters, they account for an illegal catch of 40,000 tons per year amounting to a loss of US$ 28 million for that country. The actual loss is much larger considering that the Chinese boats do their illegal fishing most actively at nighttime.
The same tragedy of illegal fishing by the Chinese also befalls Guinea, another West African nation. The Bonfi seaport in Conakri Province looks dour. The wooden boats painted in vibrant colors can no longer haul in an abundance of fish like before. The inhabitants of Bonfi though angry could only watch in complete desperation the Chinese pirate ships. The government of Guinea lacks the means to defend its territorial waters but at the same time is paralyzed by corruption.
As far as China is concerned, a bane for others is a boon for them. Greenpeace reported that China showed the most blatant and ruthless behaviors during the time Guinea was struck by the disastrous Ebola epidemic in 2014. Instead of lending a helping hand, the Chinese rushed in additional boats to increase its illegal fishing activities off the coast of that unfortunate nation.
According to the Environment Justice Foundation (EJF), West Africa is where illegal fishing occurs the most. And the number one culprit is China that has enriched its coffers by engaging in stealing the fish, the most important food source, of the poorest people in the West African countries of Cape Verde, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Senegal... Poor, devoid of any means to protect themselves, they are being bullied by the big country of China. The corrupt goverments in West Africa [corruption also counts as a soft power weapon used by the Chinese] do not run short of slogans exhorting the efforts to protect the sea. However, their people are fully aware that those slogans are devoid of any real meanings. Forced to deal with a big country like China, previously known as “a pirate nation”, it can be assumed that those West African nations are fighting an uphill battle. And there is a good chance that they would end up with the short end of the stick.
Picture 4: Flimsy wooden pirogues used by Guinean fishermen - like this one - constantly run the risk of being chased away or overpowered by the super trawlers from China [source: BBC World-Africa 8 July 2016]
China commands the world’s largest fishing fleet that can undertake months-long journeys to faraway destinations all over the world in order to fish illegally in the territorial waters of other nations. It is safe to assume that no country that borders the sea can claim it is exempt from that scourge.
The United Nations documents showed that illegal fishing, mostly perpetrated by China, resulted in a loss of US$23 Billions to the world’s economy each year. And the waters offshore of West Africa is where those activities are most acttive. The Environment Justice Foundation (EJF), a British NGO, remarked: "The people who commit those illegal high sea robberies have enriched themselves at the expense of the most destitute inhabitants of the West African nations."
TURNING ONE’S EYES TO THE EAST SEA AND VIETNAM
Thousands of Filipino fishermen had been chased away from their traditional fishing areas – the surrounding waters of the Spratlys - by the Chinese Navy. Fishermen from Palawan can no longer rely on the sea to earn a living. They must turn to burning the forests to farm but due to soil erosion caused by the rain, the parched fields are no longer arable. (1)
Vietnam is blessed with a 1,367 mile-long coastline. The “golden” jungles and “silver” seas much praised in the past by the elementary school text book Quốc Văn Giáo Khoa Thư now belong to the long gone days. The jungles are disappearing due to deforestation, the seas polluted and stripped of fish. The Vietnamese fishermen face a lot much worse than that of their brothers in West Africa. They not only are deprived of their fish but also lost control of their seas. Should they decide now to sail into the waters that for ages belong to their forefathers, it would be at the risk of their lives.
Picture 5: The fleet of fishing boats of the East Sea on the Sông Tiền gets ready to sail out unprotected. They are constantly harassed by the Chinese even within the territorial waters of Vietnam [source: photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]
- 06/7/2015: the Chinese used water canons to damage the Vietnamese fishing boats
- 6/10/2015: four Chinese boats surrounded a Vietnamese one subduing its crew of 11, robbing it of 6 tons of fish
- 6/19/2015: Chinese soldiers boarded a Vietnamese fishing vessel, destroyed its nets, confiscated its communication equipment and compass, and stole its catch of 5 tons
- 9/29/2015: an armed group on a Chinese boat boarded a Vietnamese one, confiscated its navigation equipment and 2 tons of fish then sank it 12 hours later.
- 11/14/2015: a Chinese flotilla surrounded 5 Vietnamese fishing ships in the Gulf of Tonkin then destroyed all their nets. The incident only ended 12 hours later when they were rescued by the Vietnamese Coast Guard.
- 01/01/2016: a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese boat near Cồn Cỏ only 40 miles offshore from Quảng Trị, the 11-member crew was later rescued by their countrymen
- 03/06/2016: 11 members from two Coast Guard cutters flying the Chinese flag took over a Vietnamese fishing boat in a surprise attack near the Paracels. They not only destroyed its navigation equipment, nets, all the food supply, reserve fuel but also stole the entire catch.
- 5/13/2016: a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the coast from Quảng Nam, 350 nautical miles North East of Danang in the vicinity of the Paracels. The Vietnamese lost all their fishing equipment and 30 tons of cuttlefish worth US$ 450.000.
- 07/09/2016: a Vietnamese fishing boat with a crew of 5 on board was given the chase by a Chinese Coast Guard cutter and sank near the Paracels 34 nautical miles from the Bông Bay island and left them to their fate.
- 11/10/2016: the Vietnamese fishing boat KH 97580-TS was rammed by a Chinese Coast Guard cutter and chased off the waters of the Paracels near the Phú Lâm and Linh Côn Islands.
- 05/01/2017: most recently the Vietnamese fishing boat BĐ 93241-TS and a crew of 15 was rammed and sunk by an “unidentified” vessel causing one dead and one injured.
China continuously attacks the Vietnamese fishing boats (3). Obviously, those attacks are not isolated but fall within a deliberate strategy. Beijing gave the green light to those repeated belligerent acts. This is a policy aiming at “killing two birds with one stone”. On one hand, this country wants to assert, by force of arms, its sovereignty over the disputed sea. On the other, it pushes ahead with the exploitation of the entire natural resources, oil deposits, and fish stocks of not only the two Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes but also of the near coast that apparently belongs to the inviolable sovereignty of Vietnam.
The Vietnamese fishermen valiantly cling to the sea in spite of the empty declaration of support coming from the spokesperson for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "We strongly condemn the inhuman treatment, use of force against the Vietnamese fishermen and request that China investigate and take appropriate measures against its coast guard personnel who intentionally sank Vietnamese fishing vessels, left the crew to their own devices under perilous conditions that might imperil their lives. Vietnam requests that China observe international laws, prevent similar incidenst from reoccuring and make commensurate restitutions to the Vietnamese fishermen.” VnExpress 13.07.2016
Did such letters of protestation bring about any results? Have those victims received any satisfactory compensations from the Chinese Government? The surviving victims know the answers to those questions too well! As is always the case, the relationship between Vietnam and China has unfailingly been described and claimed by the Vietnamese Politburo to be good in line with the terms in the “16 Word Guideline”.
Picture 6: A Chinese ship ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat on the East Sea. This is only a specific incident in a continuous chain of events of Vietnamese fishing boats being attacked by the Chinese. [source: thoibao.today, photo by VOV] (7)
We need to pause a moment here to take note of this regrettable fact: the Vietnamese fishermen cannot expect any protection from their own government while at the same time are prevented by China from fishing in their traditional waters. In their desperation, in order to survive, a number of them have taken the risk of plying the waters of neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and lately all the way to Australia to fish. Those few and tiny fishing boats would present a poor match to the large Chinese flotillas that do illegal fishing with the ample military protection from the Chinese Navy. Beijing adheres to this practice to meet its economic, social as well as military needs as dictated by its expansionist policy.
THE “MALLEABILITY” IN CHINESE BEHAVIOR
The fact that China steals the fish and violates the territorial waters of other nations has resulted in many disputes. The reactions to and intensity of those disputes depend largely on the relative strength of China’s opponents.
Just in the Pacific Area alone – not counting the Paracels and Spratlys now under Chinese occupation – that nation’s fishing boats are known to poach in the waters belonging to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Phillipines, and Vietnam. The preferred behavior displayed by the Chinese fishing flotillas is that of a bully. They threaten weaker opponents but beat a hasty retreat in the face of the powerful Japanese and South Korean coast guard vessels.
Considering they do not have the ability to defend themselves militarily, the West Africans nations are reduced to a posture of anger and resignation. Vietnamese fishermen, however, still persevere in their defence of their right to fish in their ancestral waters in spite of the pressure and threat coming from China.
However, things are different with some other nations. In the case of Indonesia, its government has seized many Chinese boats fishing illegally in its waters. It also ordered its Air Force to fly 5 F-16s to the Natuna island and sink boats that violated its territorial waters. As recently as April of this year, Indonesia destroyed 81 foreign ships caught fishing illegally including a number of Chinese ones. Since 2014, President Joko Widodo’s government has carried out the demolition of over 300 fishing ships. Indonesia is resolute in protecting its territorial waters and fish stocks in total disregard for the diplomatic tensions with Beijing that ensued.
Thanks to its very powerful coast guard, South Korea conducts a very vigorous enforcement policy. Its naval forces never hesitated to fire at and overpowered the Chinese fishing boats that encroached on its waters resulting in several deaths. The Chinese just fled the scene. [Picture 7]
Picture 7: Chinese fishing boats fleeing from the South Korean Coast Guard patrol ships. When will Vietnam be able to command such a powerful naval force [source: Dong-A Ilbo Newspaper]
On March 15, 2016, the Argentinian Coast Guard, South America, spotted a large Chinese ship illegaly fishing in its waters and ordered it to sail away. Its crew refused and resisted. The ship was sunk by the Argentinian Coast Guard and four Chinese fishermen captured. The rest of the crew fled on board of another Chinese vessel.
Picture 8: A Chinese’s fishing ship is sinking after being hit near Argentina, Souht America [source: AFP/ Getty Images 15 March 2016]
NAPOLÉON AND THE LAND OF THE SLEEPING DRAGON
Napoléon, a 19th century French military genius, offered this warning about China: "China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”
At the treshhold of the third millennium, two centuries after Napoléon, China has awakened. It does not only move but tilts the axis of our earth in a negative way. This giant, with the world largest population, is the bearer of ominous tidings: the leading polluter of land and air, oppressor of Tibet, the “third axis” of the earth and source of the major rivers in Asia, the exploiter and exterminator of the oceans’ marine life. Nowadays, with its “one border one road” strategy, this country harbors the ambitious desire to conquer and harness the natural resources of our entire planet relying on “the reason of the strongest”.
Turning our attention to Vietnam, with a population of over 95 million, this country ranks 14th in the world. Disregarding a minority of super rich cadres, the rest of the people share a common and modest dream: having clean air to breathe, clear water to drink, and enough food to eat daily like rice, fish soups and some clean vegetables.
However, with red sludge oozing out from a bauxite mine in Tây Nguyên, the paper mill Lee & Man polluting the Sông Hậu River, Formosa steel factory near Hà Tĩnh discharging an unending flow of toxics into the sea… the pollution in Vietnam has reached a red alert level. Under such conditions, even that modest dream for a daily meal would prove to be beyond the Vietnamese people’s reach. The question to be asked would be: who is the perpetrator?
A history lesson to remember: to survive our people have to rely on their own strength, be united internally as well as externally and must learn to say “NO” to China.
NGÔ THẾ VINH
California, May 21, 2017
- China's Appetite Pushes Fish Stocks to Brink; Overfishing by Giant Fleet Exacts a Toll on Oceans Worldwide. Adrew Jacobs, The New York Times, Sunday 04.30.2017
- How China's Trawlers are Emptying Guinea's Ocean. BBC World Africa, 08 July 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36734578
- China Continues Attacks on Vietnamese Fishing Boats. Gary Sands, 13 May 2016. Foreign Policy Association
- China’s Reclamations Roil South China Sea;James Borton; World News / 11 April 2015; https://intpolicydigest.org/2015/04/11/china-s-reclamations-roil-south-china-sea/
- Chinese Illegal Fishing Threatens World Waters. AsiaToday; The WorldPost. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/asiatoday/chinese-illegal-fishing-t_b_10425236.html
- China Sinking Fishing Vessel Raises Tensions With Vietnam Bloomberg News; May 27, 2014, 2:02 AM PDT
- Trung Quốc cố tình đâm chìm hàng loạt tàu cá Việt Nam. Thời Báo.today; 05/08/2015 11:25:38 http://thoibao.today/paper/trung-quoc-co-tinh-dam-chim-hang-loat-tau-ca-viet-nam-118340