There's Something Fishy About This Chinese Fleet
China's fishing fleets are the maritime version of Russia's Little Green Men
China’s fishing fleet — numbering perhaps as many as 800,000 vessels — is an international menace.
This Chinese armada has long-since gobbled up nearly all the sea life within Chinese territorial waters in an effort to feed its bulging middle class. In recent years, scores of Chinese fishing boats, operating from a worldwide network of bases, scours the seas for sealife, often depleting local fishing stock everywhere from Galapagos to Ghana. The fishing boats aren’t just an environmental menace, either — they can devastate local economies. Some Chinese fishing boats are so massive they can catch as many fish in a week as local fisherman can in a year.
China’s fishing vessels are thought to work in close cooperation with its military forces. In 2016, Indonesian authorities stopped and boarded a Chinese fishing vessel, the Kway Fey, operating in Indonesian territorial waters. Shortly after boarding the vessel and detaining the crew, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed the Kway Fey, breaking it free of Indonesian control, whereupon a second Chinese vessel boarded the Kway Fey and sailed it to safety. Many suspect the rapid response was due to close communication between the fishing vessel and the Chinese military.
Indeed, aside from the environmental and economic impact, some experts are concerned the boats are a perfect Grey Zone weapon, with one Australian think-tank referring to the flotilla as “Little Green Fishermen”, a nod to Russia’s shadowy armed troops which seized Crimea in 2014. Experts fear the fishing fleet — usually accompanies by armed vessels from China’s Maritime Militia — might use fishing rights as a fait accompli for seizing territory in the Paracel or Spratly Islands, both of which are contested by China and its neighbors. It’s also bad news for US efforts to contain China, as the islands could serve as launch points for missiles capable of sinking an aircraft carrier or its fighter compliment from hundreds of miles away.
Who knows? A future shooting match in the South China Sea might be less about aircraft carriers and more about simple trawlers.