South China Sea: The Fishermen on the Front Lines

Vietnam’s and China’s fisheries are at the forefront of the South China Sea disputes.

South China Sea: The Fishermen on the Front Lines

Lingao fishermen repairing their boats, Tanmen, Hainan (2015).

Credit: Edyta Roszko

Under the cover of night, a Vietnamese boat with fishermen from one of Central Vietnam’s coastal provinces sneaks into the exclusive economic zone of Malaysia in the South China Sea to buy freshly caught seafood from other Vietnamese fishermen who act as brokers. Cam — a young Vietnamese fisherman — had just entered Malaysian waters when a speedboat with five masked and armed men on board seized his boat and quickly forced the fishermen to the bow and on their knees. They were not allowed to turn their heads to catch a glimpse of their attackers, who stripped them of their mobile phones and other valuables that they had on their bodies. Beaten with gun barrels and bamboo sticks, the fishermen were threatened and intimidated and then forced into a cell under the deck where they had to wait until the boat with the attackers sailed away.

The Vietnamese fishermen could not tell who the attackers were, although some pointed at the Malaysian military, whose offshore exclusive economic zone stations were located on nearby islands and atolls. According to Cam, the Malaysian military was responsible for safeguarding the sea under national jurisdiction and they knew where Vietnamese fishermen trespass into foreign territorial waters. If he had been in Indonesian waters Cam would not have been so lucky. His boat would have been burned and destroyed on the spot by the Indonesian navy to prevent them from returning, he explained.

This incident shows the complex reality of fishing in the South China Sea, which is subject to claims for sovereignty from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries, and involves other global powers such as the United States. Besides its growing geopolitical importance, the South China Sea is a maritime region with large coastal populations in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia that depend heavily on fisheries and other marine resources for their livelihoods. The increasing imbalance between supply and demand for fish turns the South China Sea into a bitterly contested battleground not just for state sovereignty and oil and gas, but, above all, for marine resources.