Written by Alex Calvo.
The last few weeks have seen a number of incidents involving fishing vessels, most notably in the South China Sea, but also in the South Atlantic. On 15 March Argentina’s Coastguard sank a Chinese jigger which was illegally fishing in the country’s territorial waters, in what may constitute a test for bilateral relations under new President Macri. Beijing is not only a key financial and economic partner for the South American country, but supports its claims on the Falklands. Whether the incident is just a one-off, or signals some deeper changes in bilateral relations, it merits careful attention, given that should Beijing succeed in breaking out of the First Island Chain a more robust posture in the South Atlantic and Antarctica may be expected. During the election campaign, Argentine President Macri promised to review all recent contracts signed with China, but this does not seem to be taking place.
Reporting on the incident and citing Argentina’s Coastguard, Mercopress explained that the Chinese-flagged Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 had “refused to stop and even tried to ram the patrol vessel” pursuing her, which first fired “warning shots across the Chinese boat’s bow as it attempted to raise the crew by radio” and then targeted the ship’s hull. The incident took place off Puerto Madryn (Chubut Province), 1,300 kilometres south of the country’s capital, in an area rich in squid. According to the Marine Traffic website, the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 had sailed from Cape Town on 23 February, having previously arrived at Punta Arenas (Chile) in December.
The Coastguard (“Prefectura Naval Argentina”; PNA) posted a statement on its website, accompanied by footage of the incident. The text explains that the Chinese ship had been detected on radar, while fishing in Argentina’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), and pursued by the “GC-28 Prefecto Derbes” patrol boat, which then proceeded in accordance with the “deterrence protocol” in a bid to stop and board her. Despite “repeated radio calls (in Spanish and in English)” and “sound and visual signals”, the Chinese ship “turned off her fishing lights and started to flee, sailing towards international waters, without answering the repeated calls on different frequencies”. The Argentine boat then “carried out intimidatory shots, but also failed to stop” the Chinese jigger. The Coastguard statement explains that, at that time, they had detected two other nearby fishing boats, adding that “On different occasions, the offending ship performed manoeuvres designed to force a collision with the coast guard vessel, putting at risk not only the lives of her own crew but also that of the government agency’s personnel, and as a result the order was issued to shoot at different parts of the vessel, achieving the goal of damaging her”.
The shots caused the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 to start sinking, “the captain stopped her sailing” and her crew abandoned ship, four (including the captain) being picked up by the Coastguard while the rest were rescued by another Chinese ship, which had been “escorting” her. The Coastguard statement also explains that an aircraft had been deployed in the operation, and that Rawson’s First Instance Federal Court had opened a case, while the incident had been reported to the Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Chinese Consulate. Mercopress noted that it was not clear whether the sinking had taken place on 14 or 15 March. Commenting on the patrol boat’s design and capabilities, Chuck Hill wrote on his specialized blog that the vessel in the video “Prefecto Durbes (GC28) is one of five offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) built in Spain for Argentina” and that while her “Bofors 40mm/70” gun platform appeared vacant, “This suggest that the damage was probably done by .50 cal. machine guns. We know from our Vietnam experience that .50 cal. can sink fishing vessels, but the ranges are very short. Looking at the video the ships appeared to be no more than 300 yards apart”.
In February another incident involving a Chinese fishing ship took place in the South Atlantic, when Argentina’s Coastguard detected the Hue Li 8 operating in the country’s EEZ. Ordered to stop by radio, and despite warning shots, she sought refuge in Uruguayan waters, prompting a confrontation between the two countries’ coastguards, and accusations by Marine Conservation expert Milko Schvartzman that “dozens of pirate, illegal ships, or as it is internationally called ‘IUU’ (illegal, unregulated and unreported) are supplied and logistically supported in the port of Montevideo”. According to Schvartzman, “This situation is much more serious than the resonant conflict over the installation of the pulp mill on the river shared by both countries. If a resolution is not taken by both governments, a more serious incident will end up bursting”.
China operates the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet, active in myriad regions including the South Atlantic. This fleet is not only one of the country’s food security pillars but plays a key, integrated, role in China’s maritime posture, operating in conjunction with Beijing’s navy and coast guard agencies, and supporting its Maritime Militia. To date, fishing vessels have been used in an offensive mode only in nearby seas, such as the South and East China Seas, which Beijing considers to be part of her national territory. On the other hand, some incidents have taken place elsewhere, following the pattern of the one described here, and involving small numbers of fishing boats rather than a combined civilian-militia-naval taskforce.
The incident merits careful attention by the British national security community for a number of reasons. First of all, because in recent years Beijing has emerged as one of Buenos Aires’ staunchest supporters, not only in the trade and investment arenas, but at the political and diplomatic level, openly embracing her claims to the Falklands and South Georgia and her refusal to rule out the use of force. Second, given the risk of similar incidents in the Falklands’ waters. Third, because China’s extensive fishing interests provide Beijing with an added incentive to intervene in the South Atlantic, trading fishing rights for a contribution to Argentine non-lethal operations aimed at de facto eroding British sovereignty. In other words, should Beijing succeed in breaking out of the East and South China Seas, she may deploy fishing assets in the South Atlantic under agreement with Buenos Aires, with the dual purpose of exploiting stocks and helping Argentina push forward her sovereignty claims. Following the 1982 war and decades with little investment in naval and military capabilities, Buenos Aires has lost the ability to mount a conventional challenge in the region. However, Beijing’s success in gradually tightening its stranglehold over the South China Sea shows how conventional military assets can be bypassed by large fishing fleets operating in conjunction with naval forces. This is a challenge for which Mount Pleasant, designed to deter and defeat a conventional invasion or blockade, is simply not designed to cope. An anti-ship missile is not much use against a trawler, because threats to use it are not credible, and, as the saying goes, “the enemy has a vote”.
To conclude, the sinking of the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 may be a test to ascertain the fate of bilateral Sino-Argentine relations with a new president in office in Buenos Aires. While it is still too early to say whether it will simply be a one-off incident or whether it will cause lasting damage, it merits careful attention given the depth of Chinese support for Argentina’s economy and territorial claims. While Beijing is unlikely to adopt a more robust posture in the South Atlantic and Antarctica unless and until she secures the East and South China Seas, the shadow of asymmetric, non-lethal warfare, is hanging over Mount Pleasant. While the United Kingdom retains a powerful conventional military and independent nuclear deterrent, the country relies on other nations’ fishing fleets to exploit stocks around the Falklands, which may turn out to constitute a vulnerability when it comes to defending the Islands, South Georgia, and the British Antarctic Territory. On land, the British military is already taking steps to reinforce her abilities to deploy and operate in polar and near-polar regions, with the all-female cross-Antarctica Ice Maiden expedition scheduled for 2017 a case in point. The time may soon come to decide whether “Ice Mermaids” are also necessary.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank and CIMSEC (The Center for International Maritime Security), he tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo. Image credit: CC by J Aaron Farr/Flickr.