Chinese juggernaut from IOR to the Pacific: ‘Time to check lest it reaches irreversible proportions’

When the world was busy fighting the global pandemic of Coronavirus, in July-August 2020, a vast fleet of more than 300 Chinese fishing vessels was reported to be operating at the edge of the 200-mile EEZ off the Galapagos Islands on Ecuador’s western seaboard.

Chinese juggernaut from IOR to the Pacific: ‘Time to check lest it reaches irreversible proportions’
China is a predatory power that in recent years has increased its influence in Latin America, economically and politically

Chinese predation deeply threatens the ecosystems of Latin American countries with coasts mainly on the Pacific Ocean, although its incursions into the Atlantic have not been rare, as in the case of Argentina, which has had to dispose of several fishing boats that have illegally entered its territorial sea, sinking a couple of them in the process.

When the world was busy fighting the global pandemic of Coronavirus, in July-August 2020, a vast fleet of more than 300 Chinese fishing vessels was reported to be operating at the edge of the 200-mile EEZ off the Galapagos Islands on Ecuador’s western seaboard.

“Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is one of the gravest non-traditional global maritime security threats facing nations as there is an alarming depletion of fish in the sea. This concern has been flagged worldwide. However, China, despite being a member of the UN Security Council and a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as being committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the Paris Conference 2015 blatantly disregards this and has in fact been ranked as the worst offender on the IUU Index last published in 2019,” Commodore Anil Jai Singh, Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation tells Financial Express Online.

Joint Patrol

The Galapagos Marine Reserve located within this EEZ is a UNESCO heritage site due to its delicate marine bio-diversity and the presence of many rare and endangered species of marine life. UNESCO has described it as a ‘living museum and showcase for evolution’.

“And the situation around the Galapagos Islands, which is one of the largest ecological reserves in the world, and therefore protected from predation, has been such that Ecuador has requested military assistance from its neighbours in the form of a joint ocean patrol that allows facing the fleet of more than a thousand fishing vessels that continually seek to enter its waters to prey in this rich area, this being a threat against biodiversity and the natural balance of the ocean in this region,” Bogota based Stephan Xavier Beltrán Gómez, Defense Analyst, Content Director of Infomilitar Colombia (Youtube) tells Financial Express Online.

According to Stephan Xavier Beltrán Gómez, “The formation of this joint patrol would be fundamental in the protection of the entire biome of the western South Pacific Ocean, since both Colombia with its natural reserves of Malpelo and Gorgona, as well as Chile with its overseas territories of Easter Island, have the same challenges security and protection of its threatened natural resources. And although for these countries the importance of joint work in this regard is evident, in practice it has collided with all kinds of interests that have prevented a greater collaboration of the naval forces of the countries involved outside the scope of sharing information in this regard.”

China is a predatory power that in recent years has increased its influence in Latin America, economically and politically. In Venezuela, and in compliance with the debt that the Chavista regime has contracted with Beijing, the mining region of the lower Orinoco has been plundered in such a way that large natural areas have become wastelands full of craters like the lunar landscape.

“For Colombia, China has become its second trading partner behind the United States. Although the country has not compromised the dominance of the exploitation of its natural resources against Chinese capital, it has increased the import of manufactured products from the Asian giant, which has generated a flood of cheap goods, but of questionable quality, a situation that has been presented in other countries in the region. Likewise, although exports to China have increased, on the balance, the inflow of money from these exports is still lower than what Colombia buys from that nation, so this relationship presents a deficit,” the Colombian defence analyst opines.

And this is not exclusive to Colombia, since several of the Latin American countries see China as a great business and growth opportunity for being a country of 1.3 billion inhabitants, with a consolidated middle class and purchasing power, however, they have collided With the rules of the Chinese market that rarely favours them since it is very protectionist towards their companies and it has been difficult to open this market to foreign companies. In this sense, China devours primary resources at low cost and sells processed products to the whole world while protecting its domestic market from foreign processed products.

And, “although the commercial exchange is completely favourable to China, politically it has not been able to obtain a dominant role, except in Venezuela and Nicaragua, the two communist regimes that have been sustained only thanks to the intervention of Russia and China itself, who, in exchange for their political, economic and military support to the corrupt governments of these two countries, ask for the direct concession of exploitation of their natural resources and raw materials at prices well below the world market when not directly as payment of debt,” he observes.

China’s presence in the Pacific Ocean

China, as can be expected, claims that it was not fishing in the EEZ and had done nothing illegal. The Chinese Ambassador to Ecuador denied any wrongdoing by China; the common hallmark of all Chinese diplomats is their propensity to lie outright and bully unabashedly which is not surprising considering the strident and aggressive statements that regularly emanate from its Foreign Office spokespersons.

According to the Indian Navy Veteran, Commodore Singh, “Satellite and geo-spatial imagery from multiple sources has brought to light an even more alarming and blatant illegality which further compounds this issue. International regulations state that all vessels at sea have to keep their Automatic Identification System (AIS) activated at all times so that their position and movements are known. Vessels not doing so are termed ‘Dark ships and it can be safely assumed that ‘dark ships’ go dark because they are indulging in something illegal and therefore do not want their position known or tracked.”

“In this case, at various times, a majority of this fleet went dark. That obviously indicates that these dark ships could have been fishing within the EEZ for the period they went dark. In fact, the AIS imagery of that are during that period has shown dense activity bordering the EEZ and corroborating the Chinese claim but a large number of the boats are unaccounted for. The legality issue notwithstanding, even if hundreds of these boats were just outside the EEZ, they were equally culpable in damaging the delicate marine environment and the unchecked depletion in fishing stocks in the region. For a country that aspires to be at the head of the global top table and to reshape the international order according to ‘Chinese characteristics’, its repeated misconduct makes one shudder to imagine what that would mean for the world,” Commodore Singh explains.

It has claimed ownership of the South China Sea, is staking a claim to the East China Sea and is rapidly expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean, the domination of which is critical for achieving its strategic objective. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is aimed at consolidating its maritime position between its own mainland and Europe. Control of key ports en route, its debt-trap diplomacy and its vast merchant fleet will give it the political, strategic and economic leverage to dominate the critical sea lanes in the Indian Ocean over which more than 100000 ships carry global commerce annually; in a larger geopolitical context, it intends to reshape the existing rules-based international order at sea to one of its own choosing.

The former Indian Navy submariner says, “China has built a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea and is presently developing one in the South-Eastern Indian Ocean; it is actively courting the strategically located islands in the Indian Ocean for strategic and economic benefits; it is continually stoking the existing maritime disputes in the South China Sea with its belligerence and is resorting to economic bullying because of its huge trade surpluses with the world to push its agenda. The border stand-off with India is another example of Chinese pressure tactics.”

“China is not going to restrict itself to the waters of the Indo-Pacific westward of its mainland. Like India, it also believes that the extent of the Indo-Pacific strategic geography includes the entire Indian Ocean and the entire Pacific Ocean and not a restricted portion of these waters as interpreted by the US.”

“ While it consolidates its presence in the western Indian Ocean with it’s base at Djibouti, the control of the Pakistani port of Gwadar and its recent overtures to Iran and possible control of the Strait of Hormuz, it is also turning its attention eastwards to the western coast of the South American continent much to the discomfort of Ecuador, Peru and Chile, all three of whom have expressed their concern at these developments. These countries will do well to understand China’s nefarious intent, learn the right lessons from the mistakes made by others and put a comprehensive strategy in place to keep China at bay,” Commodore observes.

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First published on: 23-11-2020 at 16:25 IST