The South China Sea (SCS) is not only the main source of animal protein for the coastal communities of Asia, but also one of the world’s most productive fishing zones, producing approximately 12% of global fish catch in 2015. More than half of the world’s fishing vessels, from small artisanal fishing boats to large industrial fishing fleets, ply these waters. They conduct activities ranging from the legitimate and licensed to the illicit and illegal.

Criminal activity conducted by fishing vessels has been steadily rising; given the impact of fisheries-related crime (FRC), there is a need for the countries of Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to collaborate in tackling such transnational illegal activities. However, over the last decade, geopolitical competition has seen these waters boiling in a cauldron of complex issues centered on (1) great power rivalry between the United States and China, and (2) maritime territorial disputes between China and the rest of the SCS coastal states. In the next decade, these waters may herald a shift in the international order. Whether the rules-based order persists, whether we shift to a power-based order, or whether we see the rise of an entirely new global security order, this cauldron may be tipped by how disputes related to FRC are dealt with in the SCS.

What constitutes FRC?

There is currently no consensus definition for “FRC”; while it points towards crimes conducted in the fisheries-related sector, it remains a vague and ambiguous term. But when compared to “illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing”, “FRC” is both broader in scope and the more recognized term within the SCS coastal states, as well as being more actionable for prosecution by law enforcement agencies (as FRC are criminal activities). For purposes of this article, FRC comprises crimes in the fishing industry including IUU fishing, as well as other criminal activity such as illegal human exploitation through forced labor onboard fishing vessels, and the use of fishing vessels to smuggle drugs and other illegal items. FRC is further sub-classified as:

  1. Localized FRC activities. “Single-state issues” prosecuted under that state’s jurisdiction and legislative process; e.g. one state’s vessel using illegal equipment to fish in the same state’s waters.
  2. Cross-border FRC activities. “Bilateral/multilateral issues” requiring cross-state action to resolve; e.g. catching fish in one state’s waters and illegally landing/selling off the catch in another state, or poaching fish in another state’s waters and illegally bringing the catch back to one’s own state to sell.
  3. High-seas FRC activities. “Regional issues” that takes place outside of any states’ waters in the high seas, requiring regional action to resolve; e.g. shark finning—the illegal practice of hauling a shark onboard, slicing off its fins and then discarding its carcass—which is illegal in multiple countries and regions, but cannot be policed effectively by any single state.

Securitizing against FRC – challenges and state commitment level

Criminals commit crime at sea as the payoff is enormous and the risk is perceived to be low—there is a lack of law enforcement assets at sea to apprehend offenders, constraints in the judicial process to prosecute cross-border FRC, and clashing priorities between neighboring states, all of whom have different challenges and differing levels of commitment and interest.

Summary of SCS coastal states’ challenges and commitment levels to combat FRC

Country Challenges faced Commitment level
Brunei Cross-border FRC – Foreign illegal vessels from neighboring countries conducting IUU fishing FRC (IUU fishing) accorded moderate priority
China Cross-border and high-seas FRC – Illegal activities by distant water fishing fleet; further complicated by opaqueness of industry FRC (illegal activities on distant water fishing fleet) accorded high priority
Indonesia Cross-border and high-seas FRC – Illegal fishing practices (e.g. overfishing & bomb fishing), natural resource theft, drug smuggling, human trafficking, arms smuggling, piracy; also facing internal governance and coordination issues FRC (full spectrum of FRC activities) accorded high priority; had lobbied ASEAN member states to categorise IUU fishing as Transnational Organized Crime to enable closer transnational cooperation
Malaysia Cross-border FRC – Illegal fishing activity (overfishing), kidnap for ransom, smuggling, human trafficking and other illegal activities in the maritime domain, and sea robbery and piracy; also facing low public awareness of impact of FRC FRC accorded low priority due to limited political will/public pressure in combating FRC
Philippines Cross-border FRC – Illegal fishing/poaching, destruction of habitat; also having difficulty in effectively asserting territorial claims and protecting fishers’ perceived rights due to relatively weak navy/coastguard FRC (illegal fishing, habitat destruction) accorded high priority
Vietnam Cross-border FRC – IUU fishing, drug trafficking, people smuggling, illegal migration, transnational crime, and maritime piracy; EU yellow card additional push factor to combat IUU fishing FRC (IUU fishing) accorded high priority

What can be done?

Given FRC’s transnational and transboundary nature, single states not only lack the resources to address their own FRC challenges but are structurally unable to without cooperation from others. International cooperation is required and can only be secured through (1) establishing shared responsibilities via memorandums of understanding and common frameworks, and (2) developing common processes and procedures to prosecute transnational crime. However, given the current state of distrust, there is a need to take baby steps to develop trust and engender goodwill. One means of achieving this is by sharing unclassified operational information via info-sharing centers – which could include national centers such as Brunei’s National Maritime Coordination Centre, the Indonesian Maritime Information Centre, Philippines’s National Coast Watch Centre, as well as regional centers such as the Information Fusion Centre situated in Singapore.

How can info-sharing centers help?

Info-sharing centers are important nodes for collecting, collating and sharing data. Maritime info-sharing allow centers to generate understanding and foster trust, especially if the information is timely and actionable, allowing agencies to cue enforcement actions at sea. This in turn advances inter-agency partnerships and create win-win situations—successful enforcement at sea raises awareness and push issues to the forefront. Maritime info-sharing enables SCS coastal states to collectively deal with the common challenge of cross-border FRC. At the very minimum, info-sharing allows SCS coastal states to maximize situational awareness and collective sense-making. To leverage these info-sharing centers, three recommendations are:

  1. Maintaining a common situational picture on vessels of interest. The national maritime security authorities could grant access to their databases for all registered fishing vessels’ information, including vessel-monitoring system data—typically considered national propriety information. This will create a common database for info/intel sharing on tracking vessels of interest and in turn allow for a common picture of all registered vessels.
  2. Maintaining a centralized repository of all FRC incidents. Tracking and recording all FRC incidents will allow for scanning of historical records to spot trends and patterns, common areas of conflict, and work towards solutions
  3. Maintain relationships and foster trust with land-based entities. There needs to be relationships built with land-based entities, as most maritime problems emanate from land: e.g. education of fishermen on land is crucial to recognize FRC at sea. In addition, sea-land coordination is important to ensure seamless interface for follow-ups ashore and provide the legal foundations of prosecution.


With the uptrend observed in FRC over the past years, there is a need for states to collaborate against a common threat. We achieved a first step in preserving our common oceans heritage with the passing of the high seas treaty. Let us continue taking steps to grow stronger as a human community—by communicating without barriers, strengthening regional maritime security, and underscoring the need for cooperation amidst the simmering cauldron of geopolitical uncertainty in the SCS.

About Eric Ang

Eric Ang is a graduate student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. His research interests include fisheries-related crimes in the Indo-Pacific, civil-military responses to maritime security challenges, and maritime information sharing.