China expands its maritime footprint in the Indian Ocean through its Fishing Fleet

Sub Title : A need for India to raise its guard

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2021

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Page No. : 66

Category : Geostrategy

: January 25, 2021

Pakistan may allow Chinese companies to carry out deep-sea fishing in the country’s territorial waters. Local fishermen have issues over this as it will impact their livelihoods. However, it is also an area of concern for us as Chinese fishing fleets are known to be  a part of the military surveillance and intelligence networks. Hence their forays into waters closer home should be enough to make us raise our guard

China has drawn plans to boost Pakistan’s Blue Economy. According to Li Bijian, the Consul General in Karachi, Chinese investors are keen to invest in Pakistan’s fishing sector by providing them with necessary technical assistance for setting up infrastructure and help them increase capacity to export seafood. In return, China is seeking for its investors incentives like “tax rebate or tax-free option for some period of years,” Li Bijian has also noted that in the past China has been providing “engines, solar panels and fishing nets, etc. to the local fishermen to help increase their fishing capacity”.

However, docking by 12 Chinese deep-sea trawlers, in October 2020, in Karachi harbour had irked the Pakistani fishermen who said that “commercial fishing vessels and bottom trawling would deplete fish stocks in the exclusive federal sea zones off the provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan”. Further, Chinese “vessels threaten the livelihoods of small fishers by depriving them of catch today, and in future by ecologically destroying the sea.” Aslam Bhootani, who represents Gwadar in the National Assembly, too raised the issue in the legislature and said that the “Local fishermen of Gwadar do not stand a chance against these Chinese vessels, and that is why we oppose them,”

Gwadar is the seaward node of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project, which runs from Kashghar in China’s western Xinjiang region and ends in Gwadar in Pakistan. The CPEC has attracted international attention for its strategic value and has long been labelled as an outpost for the PLA Navy to operate in the Indian Ocean. The Pakistan Navy has accorded high priority to the security of the Gwadar port and its operations. This is best understood by the fact that it deployed ships and aircraft to provide security cover to ensure safe and secure transit of cargo ships MV Cosco Willington and MV Al-Hussein which were carrying containers that had arrived from Kashgar through the CEPC to Gwadar.

Chinese fishing trawlers have been seen across the oceans and as many as 300 Chinese fishing vessels sail annually for the Indian Ocean; in 2019 their number increased to nearly 450. In the Indian Ocean Region, the “fishing activity has a seasonal behaviour wherein the fishing vessels withdraw from Arabian Sea prior to the onset of monsoon and return in September and October,”

In June 2019, 10 Chinese fishing vessels sought emergency shelter at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra to escape the fury of Cyclone Vayu. The Indian Coast Guard inspections revealed that these vessels had storage capacity of 80,000 tonnes, 500,000-watt LED lights and illegal fishing gears such as squid jigging equipment, purse seine and pelagic fishing nets and devices to catch. Their catch included huge stock of fish endemic to Indian waters. The crew were of Indonesian and Chinese nationalities and did not possess valid travel documents including passports. Experts argue that the “Chinese trawlers can always move into more direct harassment of Indian fishing vessels like manoeuvring dangerously close or physically ramming them, thereby, making it unsafe for Indian fishing boats to operate in open International waters. China can be using hundreds of fishing vessels as maritime militia to limit the Indian fishing boats,”

The reputation of Chinese fishing companies is very low and have attracted international criticism. For instance, South Korea has accused the Chinese vessels of IUU(stands for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) operations. Reportedly, 341 Chinese fishing vessels broke rules and South Korea warned of stringent action against defaulters including fines and confiscation of catch instead of handing the matter over to Chinese authorities. Similarly, Indonesia took bold steps to curb IUU fishing and over 150 vessels engaged in IUU operations in Indonesian waters have been scuttled. Notwithstanding fears of a diplomatic fallout for Sino-Indonesian relations, Indonesia sank a Chinese vessel that was caught fishing in its waters in 2009. Indonesia also scuttled 30 foreign and local boats, which included 11 from Vietnam, 8 from Malaysia, 7 from the Philippines and the balance from Indonesia.

In recent times, 300 Chinese fishing vessels were seen operating just off the Galápagos Islands, and NGO Global Fishing Watch which works in partnership with Google and the environmental watchdog SkyTruth, Oceana “documented Chinese vessels apparently disabling their public tracking devices, thus providing conflicting vessel identification information”. This prompted Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to issue a joint statement of their intention to work together and “prevent, discourage and jointly confront” any attempts to illegally fish. China has been labelled as world’s worst nation in a 2019 IUU fishing index and is accused of “overfishing, targeting of endangered shark species, illegal intrusion of jurisdiction, false licensing and catch documentation, and forced labour”.

Besides engaging in IUU fishing, the Chinese fishing fleet is part of the military surveillance and intelligence networks. Experts argue that “many of these fishing vessels are indistinguishable from China’s ordinary fishing fleet, as they engage in a variety of peacetime missions and receive military training to conduct operations during armed hostilities.” Furthermore, “the vessels of the Chinese maritime militia could be used to support some PRC military missions. Some of the maritime militia may be coastal fishing craft that are immune from capture during armed conflict but may be attacked if they assist the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) military effort in any manner.  Most of the maritime militia vessels operate on high seas and are usually engaged in commercial fishing, but occasionally are called on to assist the PLAN or China Coast Guard (CCG).”

The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) operate as the Third Sea Force of country and supports the CCG and PLAN operations. Their fishing vessels are “equipped with advanced electronics, including communications systems and radar that supplement the PLAN force structure and enhance interoperability with other agencies” as also provide logistics support to PLAN. These can also use the Beidou navigation satellite system for tracking the position of other afloat units. The PAFMM numbers are fast expanding commensurate with the fishing fleet expansion.

There are several instances of States using fishing vessels to support military-naval operations. The Soviets deployed fishing vessels for not only supplying combat vessels but also for intelligence collection; in 1993, the US government agents found Sonobuoys capable of tracking submarines and expendable bathythermographs onboard the Russian fishing vessel Kapitan Man; the north Vietnamese used civilian ships as scouts to try to locate US forces in the Gulf of Tonkin; and during the 1982 Falkland War, the British Royal Navy destroyed Argentine fishing trawler ARA Narwhal which was suspected of passing electronic intelligence on British naval movements to Argentine forces.

It would not be surprising that China could dispatch its fisheries vessels to the Indian Ocean that could serve as intelligence-gathering platforms. Such vessels can be staged from ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti and even Sudan where Russia has recently obtained naval access lease of 25 years. Gwadar also fits well into the Chinese MSR strategy and PLA Navy’s operational plans and has the potential to provide Beijing the critical ‘leverage to play the Great Game in the Indian Ocean.’ In this context, it is of import to quote an Indian Navy tweet which reads “Indian Navy aircraft spotted the movement of Chinese distant-water fishing fleet, supported by People’s Liberation Army Navy ships, in western Indian Ocean Region when they were moving towards Morocco.”

At another level, Chinese fishing boats, particularly of the larger size, can serve as platforms for carrying laser weapons. For instance, high-powered Chinese military lasers are suspected to have been flashed at US’ C-130s in Djibouti; but the Chinese denied such insinuations. Similarly, Chinese were accused of lasers attacks on US aircraft operating in the Pacific Ocean. Apparently, these attacks originated “from a range of different sources, both ashore and from fishing vessels.”

According to Indian Ministry of Defence annual report, during the recent standoff between India and China, there was use of “unorthodox weapons” by the PLA along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Although the report does not specify the type of weapon, JinCanrong, Deputy Dean of the School of International Relations at the Renmin University of China has claimed on a TV program that PLA soldiers “made innovative use of high-power microwave weapons” to attack Indian soldiers in control of the higher positions at Pangong Tso.

In summation, the Chinese distant water fishing fleet are a potential source of concern for the global fisheries. Further, their unstainable fishing practices including IUU fishing are a major cause for environmental and ecological degradation. Besides, their growing numbers can overwhelm the local fishing communities. Up till now the PAFMM has limited its operations in the South China Sea, it is plausible that they make appearance in the Indian Ocean and operate out of Gwadar, Karachi, Colombo, Hambantota , and ports in east Africa.