Fish from disputed territories deepens China-Southeast Asia rift

Published on
June 11, 2015

Visitors to Beijing’s largest seafood wholesale market were in a nationalistic mood this week as “Xi Sha” tuna and herring were freighted with much fanfare to the capital from disputed waters of the South China Sea.

State media has celebrated the launch of a new vessel, the San Sha No. 1, by a fishing cooperative set up to catch and freeze fish on a Chinese settlement of the Paracels (named Xi Sha by China), a collection of islands east of Vietnam and claimed by both Vietnam and Taiwan under the authority of the Hainan provincial government.   

The fish were on sale at the Jingshen seafood market in southern Beijing where market administrators appear to have leveraged the patriotism of consumers to drive sales, with a spokesman for Jingshen saying the 10 tons of fish were sold within a day. 

This month’s shipment is an effort to “test the waters” in the Beijing market, explained Fu Zai Chou, head of the Yongxing Fisherman’s Cooperative, who operates the large trawler from the town of San Sha, a town China constructed from scratch. Infrastructure including airstrips and ports were built by China since it moved on to the shores in a move denounced by Vietnam and Taiwan.

In a move that will anger fishermen in Southeast Asia, the refrigerated San Sha No. 1 vessel has been adapted to carry the fish from the Paracel/Xisha Islands to the port of Haikou in Hainan province from where they’re driven overland to Beijing. Chinese patrol vessels have blocked access to the area – long a traditional fishing grounds – to Vietnamese vessels.

Meanwhile Chinese tourists have been criticized for hunting shark and rare coral species in the area after signing up for cruises and “shark hunting expeditions” provided by tour companies in Hainan – a practice Vietnam has said is encouraged by Chinese authorities as a means of confirming its de facto authority over the area.

Southeast Asian states have watched with worry as China has crammed the Paracel/Xisha islands with outposts of state companies: China Post and the ICBC Bank both have opened branches while a hotel and travel company promotes the islands as “China’s Maldives” – a reference to the Indian Ocean islands very popular with Chinese tourists.

Similar moves have been made by China on the Spratly Islands, a larger group of islands claimed by the Philippines and also Malaysia. But while China’s use of fisheries and settlements to establish control may be motivated by a wish to secure potential underwater energy resources, the ploy may also damage China’s increasing efforts to sell and source seafood in Southeast Asian countries.

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