On June 9, a Filipino fishing boat was reportedly rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel while anchored near Reed Bank, leaving 22 sailors in need of rescue. A Vietnamese fishing vessel nearby came to rescue them. Reed Bank is about 100 nautical miles off the Philippine island of Palawan and nearly 600 nautical miles from China’s Hainan island.

It was not the first time that a Chinese vessel was involved in a collision with another nation’s fishing boats in the South China Sea. However, it was the first serious incident involving a Philippine boat during the period of improved bilateral relations between Manila and Beijing that has been fostered by the Rodrigo Duterte administration. Immediately after the incident, Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin and defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana condemned the Chinese vessel’s actions in leaving the Filipino fishers to the elements.

No matter how close Duterte’s policy toward Beijing had become, an incident like this was inevitable. Multiple boat ramming incidents have been reported in the South China Sea in recent years. The victims are normally Vietnamese fishers who are often targeted by bigger, high-powered Chinese fishing vessels with Beidou satellite technology. The Chinese vessels typically ram and strip the Vietnamese of their catches and fishing equipment. Gradually, these tactics have convinced Vietnamese fishers to give up their traditional fishing grounds in the Paracels to avoid being sunk or damaged.

China’s tactics have proven effective at intimidating rival fishing boats in disputed waters. AMTI director Gregory Poling has characterized China’s approach as a “constant exercise of low-intensity violence and intimidation” which flies below the radar of high-level politics. Bonnie Glaser at CSIS has also observed “a pattern of behavior” from China that consists of “bullying, harassment, and ramming of vessels from countries whose coast guard and fishing vessels are much smaller, often to assert sovereignty throughout the South China Sea.” Nguyen Chu Hoi of the Vietnam National University in Hanoi has called it “a silent fishing war.” Mainstream Vietnamese media, however, normally avoid in-depth coverage of the ramming incidents for various reasons, ranging from lack of on-site evidence to fear of undermining the two communist countries’ ties.

In 2000, Vietnam and China signed the Agreement on the Delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf as well as the Vietnam-China Fisheries Cooperation Agreement, which have created the framework for cooperation in fishing and living resources management. The two countries have also set up a frequent joint fishery patrol in the gulf, with 16 patrol trips in the last 14 years. This mechanism has worked quite well, though it has not been able to expand to disputed areas around the Paracels and Spratlys which China still claims along with the majority of the South China Sea. China’s claim over most of the waters of the South China Sea, however, was invalidated by the 2016 ruling of a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. China rejected the international ruling, leaving those hopeful for a legal solution to end fishery clashes in the South China Sea disappointed. Given China’s rejection of international law, any expectations from Southeast Asian claimants’ for a substantial joint fishing agreement with China might be a pipe dream.

It is therefore time for Southeast Asian claimants, especially Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia to form a regional fisheries management regime. The absence of such as regime has only served to push fishers from these three countries into more confrontations with each other’s patrol ships as well as China’s in a race for depleted fish stocks. The lack of agreed-upon maritime boundaries in the South China Sea can be avoided by mapping out common fishing grounds where regional fishers can compete on equal footing for fish caught under agreed-upon rules. An effective fishery management system with legally enforceable rules and regulations among Southeast Asian countries might help conserve a sustainable fish population and eliminate destructive fishing practices such as blast fishing and cyanide fishing.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, of which Indonesia and the Philippines are members and Vietnam is a cooperating non-member, may be an appropriate regional fisheries management organization to conserve and manage tuna and other highly migratory fish stocks, but it cannot serve as a conduit to manage all contested fisheries and thereby prevent violent incidents like last week’s ramming in the South China Sea. An expanded version of the China-Vietnam fishery agreement with joint fishing patrols for Southeast Asian claimants may work better; otherwise the South China Sea will soon become China’s exclusive fish pond.

Photo: Rickard Zerpe

About Nguyen Thanh Trung

Dr. Nguyen Thanh Trung is the director of Saigon Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His areas of interest include security issues, political economy, comparative politics, and international relations. He is fluent in both English and Chinese.