Imagine the Peace

How a fishing agreement might serve as a key for the South China Sea puzzle

by: Ngoc Thang

“They raided our boat. First, they took our fish, then the essential equipment. If they liked it, they took it. If they didn’t, they threw it away,” said Le Tan, a Vietnamese fisherman recalling his terrible experience in a CNN interview. Last year, Tan and his son were chased and raided by a group of men from a Chinese-flagged vessel. He estimated that this was the fourth or fifth time over the past decade that his boat was targeted.

Despite these frightening moments, the sunburned man in blue jeans is, once again, preparing to sail his blue boat for his next trip in the disputed maritime space between Vietnam and China. Like Le Tan, many other Vietnamese fishermen make the same choice to continue fishing because it is the main livelihood for their families, and the area has served as their fishing grounds for generations.

The South China Sea (SCS) is probably the most dangerous sea in the world at the moment. Le Tan’s story is not a special case. From June to August 2017, in one province in Vietnam, it is reported that there were 21 fishing boats and 136 fishermen attacked by Chinese forces. They are beaten and even shot. There are several similar incidents with fishermen from the Philippines–a close Southeast Asia (SEA) ally of the U.S.

All of these incidents could have been avoided if there was an agreement between the SEA countries and China. However, the fishermen have been waiting for 17 years for the Code of Conduct and there is no sign that the countries will reach a consensus for this document anytime soon. A fishing agreement could be the key for this puzzle, and the U.S. plays a critical role in this, indeed.

Why should the United States care about a dispute halfway across the world?

In fact, due to the conflict, there is a rapid militarization between countries in this area. Especially, the assertive behavior of China in an attempt to control the SCS is threatening one of the core values that the United States strongly upholds, “Freedom of Navigation.” The Freedom of Navigation principle of international law covers 30% of the world’s maritime trade transiting in the SCS annually. We are talking about $5 trillion USD dollar in ship-borne trade, of which $1.2 trillion USD are bound to the United States.

The SCS is also where the United States government has obligations with its allies and its partners. It has been a formal ally of the Philippines since 1951. The United States established comprehensive partnerships with Indonesia in November 2010, Vietnam in July 2013, and Malaysia in April 2014. The US and Singapore have been strategic partners since 2015.

What is the U.S. doing in the South China Sea?

Worrying about the hegemony of China in the area, the US has implemented several policies. However, most experts would agree that the US responses in the SCS are escalating the problem rather than solving it.

The main activity of the US in this disputed maritime space is the “Freedom of Navigation” Program. The program sails the US Navy ships in the SCS to protest and challenge the attempts by the coastal nations to unlawfully restrict access to the sea. However, the program also creates many navy incidents between the U.S. and China.

The Pentagon also provides SEA countries with a fund, named the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (SMI). Unfortunately, instead of making the most contested maritime space safer to fishermen, the SMI is funding SEA countries with battleships, military training, and military equipment.

A fishing agreement facilitated by the United States

Fishing plays a big role in the SCS picture, but not many people are aware of its importance. 12% of global fish are caught in the SCS. More than 50% of the fishing vessels are operating in this area. The fisheries industry employs 3.7 million people in the area. Fishing disputes are also the reason why many fishermen from Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam are being attacked by the Chinese militia fishing fleets. Due to the lack of cooperation between countries, the practice of illegal fishing is common in this area. Illegal fishing boats in the SCS have been long-reported as a means for other crimes on the sea–like smuggling or human trafficking. Due to over-fishing, as the top 5 most productive fishing zone in the world, the SCS has been fished down to 5-30% of the level of the 1950s.

A fishing agreement facilitated by the US is one key to the issue. First, having a fishing agreement is easier than reaching a code of conduct because it does not necessarily involve the territorial dispute between countries. This could be the first step for any further negotiations between countries. Second, the U.S. can enter the negotiation as a good-will third party because this is about humans and environment rather than about taking a side in the territorial debate. Third, since AEAN has failed to cope with China in dealing with the situation, the U.S. can also help to balance the power in negotiations between China and the SEA countries.

Imagine the peace

Using the SMI effectively, the United States can start the first step for a fishing agreement: information sharing. By funding an information-analysis-and-sharing system using commercial satellite imagery, the United States can help SEA countries have enough information to monitor the enormous number of fishing vessels in the area. In the short term, this could serve as an early warning system to avoid violent incidents between fishermen in the sea. In the long term, information is the key for parties to participate in negotiating the fishing agreement. Having a fishing agreement in place, these fishermen in the SCS can finally imagine the peace in a not-so-far-away future.

Quang Ngoc Thang has worked in both the private and public sectors in Vietnam, focusing on economic policy initiatives for the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He also recently interned at a nongovernmental organization that provides legal advocacy and empowerment for communities affected by economic investment and corruptions. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economic law from Hanoi Law University in Hanoi, and speaks Vietnamese and French. Ngoc is graduate of the Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame.