As I write this Commentary, my world view has shifted toward greater anxiety. My personal mantra has always been “if it’s not going to kill me, I’ll deal with it”. But the world’s temperature is getting hotter with sizzling temperature in parts of the U.S. with deadly results, the Ukrainian war continues to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, and the insurrection that was aimed at Moscow is creating waves toward international political crisis. The U.N. Security Council warned that the threat of terrorism has increased and is becoming more diffuse in various regions of the world, aided by new technologies. The intensity of these attacks across the board only increases. My focus, though, is on China for several reasons that do not make sensational, front-page headlines.
Yigal Carmon noting in MEMRI that the Pacific Ocean is no longer the United States’ sole playground with Russia and China presently holding naval exercises off the cost of Alaska, as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps held joint exercises in the South China Sea. All at a time of heightened tensions with Beijing over, initially, the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon. The 7th Fleet, based in Japan – USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit – have conducted “integrated expeditionary strike force operations” in the South China Sea, in a clear message to China about its aggression. And I have just learned that one of our largest aircraft carriers will soon be deployed to the Pacific Ocean.
China, as I have noted on previous occasions, claims virtually – the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territorial water. It has strongly objected to military activity by other nations in the contested portions of the waterway through which $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year. Not only is the South China Sea an important part of the world economy and stability but, domestically, the polls indicate that Americans are starting to think of China, as they once did about the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Is there a new Cold War on the horizon with China?
Although the U.S. alleges that it has no “official” position on sovereignty claims of some of the island nations in the South China Sea, it maintains that freedom of navigation and overflight in that area must be protect. Several times a year, the U.S. will have its ships sailing past newly fortified Chinese outposts in the Spratly Islands, prompting the expected furious protests from Beijing.
The U.S. has also been strengthening its military alliances with the Philippines who, along with other parts of the world, have faced encroachment on their coastline and fisheries by the Chinese fishing fleets protected by the Chinese Coast Guard which acts more like an armed naval fleet than a coast guard. Japan, too, according to Japan’s Sankei press, has been deploying U.S. long-range hyper-sonic weapons and Tomahawks to the region, in a concerted effort to contain China’s forces in the area. As noted elsewhere in this commentary, China is also involved in disputes with Malaysia, Brunel and Vietnam, over territory and claimed fishing rights in the South China Sea and far beyond that part of the world, where it forcefully encroaches on the territorial fishing rights of other nations.
Although not the focus of this Commentary, its noteworthy in the context of Chinese hostility in multiple areas of international affairs that India, has announced that its troops foiled yet another attempt by Chinese soldiers to encroach into Indian territory along their disputed border in the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The incident is the most serious face-off between the Asian giants since a skirmish in another part of their Himalayan mountains. Then just after we digested that news, it had been reported that Five North Korean drones crossed into South Korean airspace, prompting the South Korean military to deploy fighter jets and attack helicopters, this while the Chinese welcomed its New Year by sending 71 planes and seven ships toward Taiwan in a 24-hour display of force directed at the island population. This was not an isolated display of violating their airspace.
To understand the physical magnitude of China’s breath, I found it astonishing that the UK could house its entire population in China’s unused apartments, and there would be an abundance of leftover room. The reason for the wealth of living quarters is that China’s population is shrinking which compounds its economic growth concerns which, for decades, has been the engine of the global economy, as reported in Prospect a UK publication. What I have been saying for years and has finally made the national news headlines: that China has blended its private industrial firms with its military infrastructure. A New York Times article did bring a smile – the Chinese have built a 26-story monolithic tower in central China, where agricultural land is scarce, that resembles a huge housing block for the sole purposes of raising pigs. Pork, as is fish, which I will discuss in greater length in this Commentary, is in high demand in China. As described, the pigs are segregated and maintained in strictly controlled environments.
What is clear, is the hostility between the U.S. and China, is only increasing by the day – just three months ago, China announced its plans to substantially increase its military buildup as tensions rise between the two governments. Tokyo, this week, hedged on confirming whether Chinese hackers had compromised the most classified military secrets of U.S. interests with its most important East Asian ally. Our intelligence agencies continually warn us that Chinese spy efforts within the U.S. is vast. And as we look to the future, China’s Mideast buildup stirs security worries for U.S. as Chinese state-owned companies are funding billions of dollars in investments near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s prime conduits for oil shipments — a move that could lay the groundwork for a future military presence. In addition, the Chinese Communist Party’s first overseas training institute is teaching up-and-coming African leaders Beijing’s approach to governing. It’s part of China’s plan to create an authoritarian-friendly political bloc in Africa.
As China moves aggressively to dominate not only the western pacific, it enjoys having the world’s largest navy and is replacing Russia as the No. 2 in space power, as it moves aggressively in parts of the world’s oceans, far from its shores. But its population, along with its shrinking economic output, is pushing the Country into a demographic crisis. Deaths outnumbered births in China last year, for the first time in more than 60 years. At the same time, the country is experiencing its worst annual economic performance in nearly half a century, growing just 3% for the year — far below the government’s target of 5.5%. And as I write this commentary, there are fears among economics and investors that the country’s economy, with its mounting debt, is on the cusp of moving into deflation affecting the world’s economy. While the two leading superpowers are increasingly playing out their aggression in the technological sphere, China, as the world’s largest natural source of metals required in the manufacturing of the precious semiconductors, is restricting the world exports of these key natural elements. A clear warning to both Europe and the United States in their very open and escalating technological war – supposedly on the grounds of national security. Unspoken and under the public radar is an equally, if not more profound crisis that will affect the well being of individuals around the globe that depend upon the supply of fish for their real-life substance. With its own coastal water depleted by over fishing, China has built a massive global fishing industry unmatched by any other country.
A typical example of that impact is in July of 2020, Ian Urbina wrote a frightening article that sounded more like a horror novel than a true case of mass murder on the high seas. Somewhere off the coast of South Korea – “battered wooden ‘ghost boats’ drifted through the Sea of Japan for months,” what was discovered: – the “only cargo (were) the corpses of starved North Korean fishermen whose bodies” had been “reduced to skeletons”. Mr. Urbina reported that in 2019 more than 150 “of these macabre vessels washed ashore in Japan. There have been more than 500 fishing vessels in the past five years. It appears from his account and based upon an NBC News investigation team, along with collected satellite data, that the most plausible explanation was: “China is sending a …armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, violently displacing smaller Korean boats…” Almost 800 of these illegal Chinese fishing boats were in violation of internationally imposed sanction, that forbid their fishing in North Korean waters. “This is the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single industrial fleet operating in another nation’s waters,” said Jaeyoon Park, a data scientist. The story doesn’t end there.
Ray Mabus, a former secretary of the navy, wrote a scathing article in the Seattle Times decrying the international communities’ lack of response to China’s openly aggressive threats to that ribbon of national security that plays out in contested maritime boundaries and, most important, global marine resources impacting the world-wide fishing industry. “The ‘invisible’ national security threat of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and China’s role in exacerbating the problem, is real, and must not be ignored.” “…fishing without authorization inside a country’s maritime boundary, ignoring catch limits, operating in closed areas, and fishing with prohibited gear or for prohibited fish or wildlife.”
Unknown to me until I started my research for this Commentary is that there is a Global Illegal Fishing Index, and China is ranked worst on this Index as “most likely” to engage in IUU fishing. It has deployed its massive size processing factory fishing ships (the mother ship) at the center of a fleet of smaller vessels that do the harvesting of fish around the world. These fishing fleets invade and lay claim not only in disputed territories but have laid claim to the territories of other nations and, as I have written before, the Chinese have constructed artificial islands to be able to lay claim to fishing rights in wide swaths of the surrounding seas. These “pseudo-navies”, as Mr. Mabus has dubbed them because of their size, aggressive and hostile action, maneuver far from the South China Sea, with, at times, positing 300 smaller fishing boats, plus a mammoth mother processing vessel at one time off the coast of Ecuador, Peru or Chile and Argentina and off the coast of Europe and Africa. The Chinese fishing fleets, since 2016, have operated off the coast of South America “virtually every day, all day, all year, moving with the fishing seasons” from the coasts of Ecuador, to eventually to Argentina. This is replicated around the globe.
As a pseudo navy, operating in large groups with at times protection/intimidation sources provided by the Chinese Coast Guard which acts more like a naval command and, to make matters worse, are illegal as they operate in a stealth mode – either by switching off their automatic tracking systems or operating
without them. They become an immense, invisible fleet of fishing vessels. China has become, by their illegal and hostile acts, the world’s largest fish processor, exporter and consumer of seafood products, with an impressive world-wide value in excessive of 21 billion dollars.
The Senkaku Islands are a group of uninhabited islands just southwest of Japan. The archipelago has been controlled by Japan since 1895. In September 2012, the Japanese government purchased three of the disputed islands from their private owner, prompting an immediate protest by the Chinese Government. Its importance is that these islands are not only close to key international shipping lanes, but there is the possibility of oil reserves and, most important, rich and vital fishing grounds. Since then, “China has been using this as an excuse to send their Coast Guard and other agencies’ ships into Japan’s contiguous zone almost every day except for stormy weather days, and these ships intrude into Japanese territorial waters several times a month,” said the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Chinese coast guard carried out similar patrols in early June this year. “China Coast Guard ships – mounted with artillery – persistently continue unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the waters around the Senkaku Islands,” said the ministry.
What is clear from all the collected data is that China has over fished and depleted its coastal waters of the fish necessary to feed its own population. Its response, the Chinese developed and built a fishing operation that spans thousands of miles from the homeland – unrivaled by any other nation. For example, the Chinese, since 2016, have operated its massive fishing fleet off “South America, virtually all day, all year, moving with the seasons from coast to coast.” Over the last two decades, China has built the world’s largest deep-water fishing fleet, with nearly 3,000 (the precise number being unknown) ships plundering by any and all means the rich and environmentally diverse fishing waters across the globe. Rear Admiral Mike Studeman, a person with deep maritime intelligence experience has written that “these industrial-scale flotillas are able to drag massive nets, literally capturing everything in their wake, often without regard for fisheries law or consent of the coastal nations.” Having severely depleted stocks in its own coastal waters, China now fishes in any ocean or sea in the world, and on “a scale that dwarfs some countries’ entire fleets near their own waters”.
The impact financially and ecologically is by increments being felt from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific, from the coasts of Africa to those crucial fishing areas off South America – a display on the high seas of China’s global economic might staring straight at the U.S. In 2017, Ecuador seized a refrigerated cargo ship, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng, carrying an illicit cargo of 6,620 sharks, whose fins are a delicacy in China. The fins had been removed by the fleet’s crew, and the carcasses of the dead sharks were dumped back into the sea. Chinese ships like the Hai Feng are generally registered in Panama but managed by a company in Beijing and are state-owned and operated. They are known in the industry as “motherships” and are built to refrigerate and preserve tons of fish caught by a fleet of smaller ships who do the actual fishing. They not only process the fish caught but carry supplies for the smaller fishing or harvesting ships so that they, in turn, can maintain long periods at sea chasing the fish without the necessity to return to a nearby port for fuel and marine parts. According to Global Fishing Watch, this particular mother ship met at sea, at one point in 2021, with more than six dozen smaller fishing boats all controlled by the Chinese Government. Their purpose was to transfer caught fish by the smaller boats to the mother sometimes referred to as a processing or floating factory. This process or procedure, I have learned, is called “transshipment” and is noted for its marking the transfer of tons of fish that normally would have had to be unloaded at a distant port possibly hundreds of miles away. Ultimately, the mother ship (for example, the Hai Feng has more than 500,000 cubic feet of cargo space, enough to carry thousands of tons of fish) with tons of processed fish, returns home to China, unloads its massive catch, and then heads out to sea again, seeking fish in some other distant ocean, pursuing a different season of fishing. There are already worrisome signs of worldwide, diminishing fish reserves, which in all likely hood, is a precursor to an ecological collapse of fishing supply. “The concern is the sheer number of ships and the lack of accountability, to know how much is being fished out and where it’s going to,” said Marla Valentine, an oceanographer with Oceana, the conservation group. “And I’m worried that the impacts that are happening now are going to cascade into the future.” Within the last two weeks the United States Coast Guard, on two separate occasions, destroyed hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels illegally fishing in the South China Sea.
Early in this commentary, I asked whether the United States and China are headed toward a cold war. I believe it has already commenced. The United States and China are poised to move further apart. Each morning, I read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and then scan a slew of new sites. Over a time, the print space and airtime covering Russia, the Ukraine and NATO has diminished, with greater emphasis placed on China’s threats and hostile activities around the globe, not merely in the Western Pacific. It is an immense nation, physically, with a large population controlled by an iron-fisted government. It has decided to challenge the rest of the world for supremacy and to, unabashedly, employ its growing military, scientific and economic power. And as I wrote the conclusion to this Commentary, I read in the New York Times “…elect officials critical of Beijing were targets of a Chinese state that has increasingly exerted its influence over Chinese diaspora communities worldwide, as part its aggressive campaign to extend its global reach…” To that end, and although internationally condemned, China continues to extend its Indo-China sphere of fishing dominance. Not thirty days ago, it openly flaunted the sovereignty of the Philippine Economic Exclusion zone, as it guarded a large fishing fleet not only by its Coast Guard (thousands of miles from home) but also by “The People’s Liberation Army Navy.” How many unintended mistakes will occur when the People’s Liberation Army Navy encroaches upon the territory of a nation unwilling to be intimidated, and the cold war turns hot? One prominent American general has already announced he is preparing his troops for that eventuality, and to that end, not one month ago, the U.S. kicked off a most important, both in scale and message, large scale military drills with its allies in the Western Pacific, described as “the most expansive in the exercise’s history”. Will the message be received?