China cites historical precedent in resisting WTO talks on ending fishing subsidies

Published on
April 28, 2020

Historical subsidization of the fleets of developed countries have become a stumbling block for Chinese negotiators during World Trade Organization talks on ending harmful fishery subsidies.

The talks have dragged into 2020 despite an effort by negotiators to culminate a deal by the end of 2019, and have been further delayed due to complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A document written by researchers working on the rural economy desk at the Development Research Centre of the State Council – the equivalent of China’s cabinet – criticizes the fact that more developed countries, such as Spain, benefitted from subsidies decades ago, but are now calling for their end.

“Developed countries paid subsidies at a time when developing countries didn’t have the financial resources to do so,” the document noted.

The document, which acknowledges that fisheries subsidies are a contributor to overfishing, offers an insight into China’s official thinking. The document was distributed to Chinese media outlets as a briefing on what’s at stake in the talks.

China’s distant-water operations took off in the mid-1980s, at a time when European fishing nations like Spain had already established in many fisheries, partly backed by E.U. subsidies. While suggesting that an end to subsidies will be “relatively easy” to achieve, the Chinese document lays out a series of questions which it says negotiators will have to answer: among these is how special status will be carved out for developing countries with large subsistence-based artisanal fisheries.

China, which considers itself a developing country, is also questioning how subsidies will be reported by various WTO member states, the document noted.

Despite its reluctance to sign onto the WTO subsidies agreement, China has made progress recently on sustainability issues. Last week, it closed public comment on its drafting of a document outlining rules for at-sea transshipment, vowing to “create a transparent system from sea to port” for the country’s distant-water fishery sector.

And China is also penning a new regulatory code for its squid-fishing companies operating the high seas. Regulators have sought feedback from China’s large global squid fleet in constructing the document, titled “Relating to Strengthening Distant-Water Squid Resources’ Sustainable Use and the High-Quality Development of China’s Squid Fishing.”

It’s not clear how the timing of the work on the documents relate to the ongoing WTO talks,  but an analyst at a China-based conservation NGO contacted by SeafoodSource suggested they were prompted by criticism of Chinese fishing practices by Latin American shore nations.

Photo courtesy of Igor Grochev/Shutterstock

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