This article argues that Beijing is using its fishing and paramilitary fleets for geopolitical purposes by pursuing a strategy of “fish, protect, contest, and occupy”, designed to reinforce its sovereignty and resource claims over contested islands in the Western Pacific and coerce other claimants into acceptance of China’s position.
Few doubt that China’s rise is this era’s principal driver of strategic change, just as the United States’ equally influential ascendancy shaped the last. But earlier optimism that the Middle Kingdom’s re-emergence as a major power would be largely benign is fading as evidence mounts that Beijing is determined to press its territorial and resource claims in the vitally important seas of the Western Pacific. In barely the blink of a geopolitical eye, China’s once lauded charm offensive has given way to exactly the kind of coercive behavior its critics have long predicted. In a 3,000-mile maritime arc running from the East China Sea to the southern reaches of the South China Sea, Beijing is at loggerheads with many of its neighbors, including erstwhile friends, over several linked territorial and resource disputes. If not wisely managed, these disputes could bring East Asia’s long peace to a premature and bloody end.
The need to protect vital maritime trade routes and secure energy resources that lie under the East and South China Seas goes some way to explaining China’s assertive approach to off-shore territorial disputes, including its claim to most of the South China Sea. But conventional narratives have largely ignored the significance of valuable marine living resources in catalyzing the dangerous mix of conflicts in the Western Pacific and the role of China’s fishing and paramilitary fleets (the various Chinese fleets responsible for fisheries protection, customs, maritime surveillance, law enforcement, and border security, many of which are armed and of substantial tonnage). In Chinese eyes, the rich fishing grounds of the East and South China seas are as critical to China’s future food security as oil and gas are to its energy future. With wild fish stocks in decline and demand rising, fish has become a strategic commodity to be protected and defended, if necessary, by force.
In this article, we argue that Beijing is using its fishing and paramilitary fleets for geopolitical purposes by pursuing a strategy of “fish, protect, contest, and occupy”—designed to reinforce its sovereignty and resource claims over contested islands in the Western Pacific and coerce other claimants into compliance, and acceptance, of China’s position. If this policy does not reverse or moderate—and there are few signs that it will—the consequences could endanger regional stability and even China’s own long-term security.