The U.S. Challenges China’s Territorial Claims Over Parts of the South China Sea

Chinese Fishing Vessels       Photo: EDF

Late yesterday, the Trump administration challenged China’s “ownership” claims of certain disputed portions of the South China Sea that are valuable fishing grounds and that also, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, contain huge reserves of oil and gas, much of which is yet undiscovered.  While the U.S. has long-believed China’s claims are unlawful, this is the first time the government takes an official position on them.  An international court four years ago decided in a case brought by Vietnam that China did not have a right to use and defend these areas as its own.

Why This Matters:  This may ultimately about all that oil and gas, but the conflict today is overfishing.  China continues to use its military to prevent Vietnamese fishing boats from harvesting in the disputed areas.  Daniel Williard of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) explains: China is the largest fishing nation in the world, it’s the world’s largest fish processor and trader, and it has a huge influence on global seafood markets. They have hundreds of millions of mouths to feed. This could get ugly given our current U.S.-China tensions over China not living up to the trade deal, and the U.S. sent the Navy to the region to show force.

The U.S. Statement

The Secretary of State said in a statement,

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea or the wider region.”

The U.S. had put its might behind this statement already.  As NPR reported, a just days ago the Trump administration sent two U.S. aircraft carriers to the South China Sea to conduct training but it was “also ‘in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific’, the Navy said, as China’s military conducted drills near the Paracel Islands — one of the disputed island chains.”

China’s Outsized Influence On Fishing

As Willard of EDF points out, because China’s demand for seafood is so huge, actions it takes to manage its fisheries and economy can spill over to other countries and their marine ecosystems — something we need to understand better.  Last year, the Stimson Center, a security think tank put out a report that shone a light on the fact that China has one of the largest distant water fishing fleet in the world, and it is growing and increasingly operating in ways that appear to be illegal to the rest of the world, but there is little publicly available information on its activities. Sally Yozell of Stimson says,  “Transparency throughout the seafood supply chain is badly needed to sustainably manage our oceans and ensure safe labor standards on fishing vessels. In today’s modern society full transparency should be a social license for any global fishing operation. We need it to safeguard the food, economic, and environmental security for coastal nations. Our report makes actionable recommendations to ensure that the international community, distant water fishing fleets, coastal nations, and the industry itself,  work together to protect our oceans and global fisheries for future generations.”

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