Just over a decade ago, in order to defeat piracy and armed robbery affecting a critical sea route to global energy security, the UN Security Council under Chapter VII called on states and organizations to actively participate by deploying naval vessels and military aircraft off Somalia’s coast. Nevertheless, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing by foreign countries forcing local fishermen to turn to piracy, was never considered reason enough to intervene in an area with some of the world’s most important coastal and marine environments and resources. Likewise, ever since Asia is the driver of global economic growth and hosts the only challenger to American hegemony, the South China Sea became the most plausible and dangerous scenario for a major military engagement between the US and China. Yet, in this struggle for power, the damage to one of the world’s richest fishing grounds caused by Chinese overfishing, pollution and reef destruction to build military outposts is often overlooked. In light of this, being away from strategic maritime lines of communication and chokepoints, it is no surprise the lack of attention to South American waters, not even when the oceans ecosystems could be at risk to collapse.
IUU fishing accounts for between 20 percent and 30 percent of global catch and costs legal fishers and governments between $15.5 billion and $36.4 billion per year. China was ranked as the world’s worst nation in the 2019 IUU fishing index and its distant-water fishing fleet, which has grown considerably over the past 20 years, is regularly implicated in overfishing, targeting of endangered species, illegal intrusion of jurisdiction and false licensing, among other misdeeds. During the day, it waits along mile 201, but when night falls, it penetrates other countries’ waters further and further, operating as part of a vast and complex network with no need to return to port, transshipping the catch to mother vessels. In fact, to make sure the fishing operation does not stop, only in 2018 China doled out $7.2 billion in fishing subsidies and more than half that money was used to provide cheap fuel. When exposed by the media, the Chinese Communist Party usually talks about a zero-tolerance policy towards IUU fishing activities, making useless decisions like banning fishing in certain areas in months when its fleet does not operate.
The sinking of the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 (2016) and the seizure of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 (2017) in South America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts respectively, did not seem to intimidate China. In August this year, just off the biodiverse Galápagos Islands, the discovery by the Ecuadorian Navy of hundreds of Chinese boats sparked outrage once again, as they were caught polluting and fishing thousands of tons of squid —essential to the diet of the unique Galápagos fur seals and endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks— as well as other commercial species that contribute to the local economy. Several months before, after the Association of Argentine Fishing Industry Chambers sent an urgent open letter to the president complaining about the illegal activity of foreign boats in the country’s economic exclusive zone (EEZ), the ARA Bouchard arrested the Chinese-flagged Hong Pu 16 as it was illegally operating in Argentine waters, with its AIS turned off but full lights on to catch squid.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, there was a clear shift in Washington’s foreign policy towards the region with a progressive retreat of the US presence in terms of political and economic influence. Beijing managed to fill the void without threatening US strategic interests, increasing its engagement by reaching “strategic partnerships” with most of the countries in the region, providing technology and funding underdeveloped infrastructure without demanding internal political adjustments. In the meantime, the Chinese public’s growing appetite for seafood has forced the Communist Party to search for solutions to secure its supply looking for fish stocks further afield.
In an acephalous region where every effort to cooperate has seriously failed to meet continuity, lacking the capacity and resources for effective monitoring, control, and surveillance; cooperation remains crucial but limited to some neighboring states, while others allow Chinese outlaw boats enter their ports. Interoperability to tackle a common scourge could go beyond declarations like the one recently made by Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru; even between Argentina and Chile in the vicinity of the Magellan Strait, as initiatives including an environmental dimension such as VIEKAREN and the Joint Antarctic Naval Patrol have been taking place for decades.
Another scenario could also include the US. Despite it may has been just to annoy China rather than fight IUU, the recent deployment of the USCGC Bertholf to jointly patrol the Ecuadorian EEZ could mean the beginning of something. As part of a broader policy to play a more active role in global issues, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. could assume leadership in the environmental agenda, adapting US presence at sea to this end in order to preserve international peace and stability. Hence, since South American countries could be considered interesting partners as the US looks to shore up and secure manufacturing supply chains, a smart move could refashion the Hemispheric triad made up of the Organization of American States —the world’s oldest regional organization—, the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance and UNITAS —the world’s longest-running annual multinational maritime exercise.
Chinese trading partnerships in the region should not undermine cooperation between coastal states nor lead to a lack of interest to fight IUU. Moreover, whatever place assigned to South America in Biden’s foreign policy, China’s rapid expansion of its fleet at a time when fisheries are in decline —93% of the world’s commercial fish stocks are overfished or fished at maximum levels—, turns a sea denial strategy into a top priority for every country in the region, as they must act in pursuit of their own national interests, focusing on increasing the cost of China’s use of the sea to limit the benefits they can gain from it.