global interests clash with PRC food demand in fishing fight

Anti-Beijing protests broke out across the Philippines on the nation’s Independence Day, 12 June 2021. The latest symptom of regional resentment, they were triggered by some 200 PRC fishing boats converging on the contested Whitsun reef in the South China Sea. Beijing claimed they were merely sheltering from threatening weather. It was an ‘incursion’ by PRC maritime militia, insisted some Filipino politicians.

The incident has not faded; details are still emerging. But diplomatic contretemps sparked by PRC fishing vessels is no new story. This latest is a glimpse of what to expect as China’s food security needs and changing diets call ever more on global resources.

food security in transition

No strangers to famine, Chinese states have for millennia placed a premium on food security. Until recently this has meant self-sufficiency in staple grains. Despite mass famines in the 1950s and 60s, China has steadily moved in on this goal, and now has the cash to buy in quality and diversity from international markets. Yet fears of shortages, contamination, panic buying and unrest over price inflation are always lurking; the crises of African swine fever and COVID-19 have not helped.

the blue granary

Self-sufficiency, for all its success, has had damaging side effects: exhausted farmland, overused chemicals, soil and water pollution, and erosion. As issues with land-based food production mount, and consumer desire for protein and fresh food grows, providers and officials increasingly look to the sea.

‘Blue granary’ scenarios have proliferated, boosting both aquaculture and fishing. Targets for upgrading and mechanising aquaculture have been set by MARA (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs). Long-term investment in and expansion of marine ranches are also in the works. Already the world’s largest aquaculture producer, MARA has now listed a number of production bases for high-quality exports. While the aquaculture sector has its own local health and environmental shortcomings, the nation’s DWF (distant-water fishing) fleet is a global concern.

Coined in 2007 by fishery guru Tang Qisheng 唐启升, ‘blue granary’ highlights the oceans’ potential for nourishing the nation and indeed compensating for its shortage of arable land.

In the ‘going global’ era, Beijing aspires to produce, consume and export seafood in proportion to its ‘major power’ status. Food security in tandem with the profit motive propels this desire; ambitious central and regional plans seek food security from the sea.

sailing abroad

Declining hauls at home have pushed the quest for protein into international and foreign waters. Per capita fish consumption boomed threefold 1980–2010, an annual growth of some 9 percent. Local waters are depleted. Ever more and larger vessels place existing fisheries at risk by practicing unsustainable fishing down the ‘food web’, whereby overfishing of larger species leads to increased catches of, and more pressure on, smaller species and invertebrates. In 2016, MARA accepted there were ‘practically no fish’ in parts of the East China Sea.

Recent years have seen more measures to limit domestic catch. Despite some success, coastal waters remain heavily polluted; climate change is set to increase many stressors. Fishers have hence moved from in- to offshore, and increasingly to distant waters.

Policy pushes fishers further afield too. The summer fishing ban grows ever stricter (although illegal operations continue). DWF continues to be favoured by the state, with the fleet still heavily subsidised. Efforts to raise the number of domestic and overseas DWF bases are now tied also to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Steps are being taken to ensure the DWF fleet complies with international regulations and conventions, but the global community remains skeptical.

fishers or militia?

The DWF fleet has become ever-present in global media; observers often see agents of geopolitics not fishers. The fleet’s cause is not helped by the long history of PLAN (PLA Navy) operations that make use of fishing vessels. Global attention has recently turned to China’s dual-use maritime militia, associated by observers with the role of vessels in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stalemate with the Philippines, and the 2014 standoff with Vietnam over the ‘981’ oil rig. Speculation over South China Sea ‘grey zone’ contests is rife.

The changing role of the CCG (China Coast Guard) further raises tensions. Formally tasked with curbing environment degradation and fisheries mismanagement, law enforcement by CCG will be vital in sustainable fisheries management. But upgrades to the fleet and a provision that would permit them to board and coerce ‘foreign’ vessels within their (disputed) jurisdictional waters cause concern.

a shared future?

Fishing incidents, such as the current standoff with the Philippines, portend more tension as domestic pressures in the PRC come up against governance of the global commons. Speaking as a champion of multilateralism, Xi Jinping calls for ‘building a community with a shared future for humankind’. A white paper underlines Beijing’s aspiration to play a constructive role in global food security. The 5-year plan meanwhile expounds multilateralism and global cooperation in ocean governance; harking back to previous calls for a ‘maritime community with a shared future’.

Other messaging from the PRC insists that ‘Xi Jinping thought on international relations’ has the only true grasp of the future, hence can offer a unique ‘China solution’. This has its domestic enthusiasts, but may also explain why Beijing’s ‘shared maritime future’ may have difficulty gaining traction globally.


Hu Bo 胡波 Peking University Centre for Maritime Strategy Studies director

PRC fishing vessels near the Spratlys are nothing abnormal, claims Hu. Maritime militia are not making the Philippines ‘offers it can’t refuse’; they simply seek shelter from threatening weather. Manilla, Tokyo and Washington have hyped the incident to pressure Beijing on South China Sea arbitration. Sovereignty and maritime rights aside, all states should offer to shelter fishers, says Hu; cooperation should prevail.

Zheng Zhihua 郑志华 Shanghai Jiaotong University professor; East Asia Marine Policy Project head

Fragmented ocean governance needs revamping, argues Zheng, citing global maritime issues: worsening marine pollution, piracy, organised crime and maritime disputes. International conventions (e.g. UNCLOS) ignore holistic marine ecosystems, he notes; dispersed multilateral agencies and dispute settlement mechanisms mean inconsistent outcomes for similar cases. In a 2020 academic paper Zheng raised the feasibility of a ‘world ocean organisation’, not to replace existing organisations, but rather to integrate them to govern the global oceans.

maritime militia 中国海上民兵

The PRC maritime militia is a paramilitary force tasked with augmenting the PLAN and CCG. Trained as military reserves, trainees retain routine civilian jobs. International critics deem maritime militia carried on fishing vessels in disputed areas a de facto Chinese security presence. Their dual civilian-military status poses crisis management and rules-of-engagement dilemmas for other militaries. During recent tensions, senior politicians in the Philippines labelled anchoring of some 200 fishing vessels off the Whitsun Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands an ‘incursion’ by the maritime militia. The PRC embassy refuted this: not only were the vessels simply sheltering from bad weather, there is ‘no Chinese maritime militia as alleged’.


1 May 2021: ‘strictest’ summer fishing ban kicks off

22 Mar 2021: PRC embassy in the Philippines denies the vessels are maritime militia

21 Mar 2021: Philippines files diplomatic protest against China over presence of 200 fishing vessels of the Whitsun Reef, Spratly Islands

21 Nov 2020: MARA releases white paper on DWF compliance

November 2020: draft Maritime Police Law sparks international controversy

24 Mar 2020: crackdown on illegal fishing announced by MARA

July 2019: new national DWF base announced in Fuzhou

2 Apr 2019: insurance support for DWF in Fujian tied to Belt and Road Initiative and ‘going global’

December 2017: 13th 5-year plan for DWF calls for restricting vessel numbers

April 2015: Zhoushan DWF base approved

2011: 12th 5-year plan highlights meeting domestic demand as a key objective of PRC fisheries development

2003: first management measures for DWF fleet

2001–10: 10th and 11th 5-year plans for fishing industry explicitly list mandatory targets for reduced fleet and fishery output

1999: ‘zero growth’ policy enacted to slow development of fishing capacity in response to stock depletion

1978–99: rapid growth and mechanisation of PRC fishing fleet with reform and opening

in case you missed it…

cp.signals—domestic policy movement
the myth of SOE creditworthiness
the last mile: getting drugs to patients

cp.positions—audit of shifts across policy sectors
cp.position: energy and environment, agriculture, scitech, macroeconomy
cp.position: governance, trade policy, society—monthly roundup
may: creating consumers
april: multilateral moves