Pledging to deliver “tangible benefits” to nations in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quad leaders have launched a maritime surveillance plan that analysts say is its most significant measure yet to counter China.
The Quad – an informal alliance made up of Japan, the United States, India and Australia – says the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) will help Pacific islands and developing countries Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to track illegal fishing and other illicit activities in their waters in real time. Although the Quad did not mention China by name, the initiative aims to respond to long-standing complaints from countries in the region about unauthorized fishing by Chinese boats in their exclusive economic zones as well as encroachment Chinese maritime militia ships in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
The Quad did not provide details of the initiative, but an unnamed US official told Britain’s Financial Times newspaper that the group plans to fund commercial satellite tracking services to provide free maritime intelligence to EU countries. Indo-Pacific.
By monitoring radio frequencies and radar signals, the initiative will also help countries track boats even when they try to avoid detection by turning off their transponders, known as automatic information systems (AIS). This intelligence will then be shared through an existing network of regional monitoring centers based in India, Singapore, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
Greg Poling, Southeast Asia fellow at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the IPMDA as “ambitious” and said it “could be extremely useful” to developing states. development of the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. “This effort could seriously reduce costs and increase capabilities for monitoring illegal fishing and the behavior of Chinese maritime militias,” he said.
With around 3,000 ships, China’s offshore fleet is by far the largest in the world.
Heavily subsidized by the Chinese government, the fleet is ranked worst on the Global Illegal Fishing Index, which tracks illegal, unauthorized and unregulated fishing worldwide.
Chinese vessels have been accused of fishing without a license at least 237 times between 2015 and 2019, while several Chinese vessels have been arrested for illegal fishing or encroachment in Vanuatu, Palau, Malaysia and South Korea in recent years. . Hundreds of Chinese vessels have also been discovered fishing for squid, transponders off, in North Korean waters.
In addition to illegal fishing, China’s fleet is also accused of targeting endangered and protected marine life in the world’s oceans, including sharks, seals and dolphins, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, a campaign group based United Kingdom.
Beijing rejects allegations of illegal fishing, saying it “strictly adheres” to international regulations. It says it has also stepped up surveillance of its offshore fleet and imposed voluntary fishing moratoriums to conserve resources, including in the northern Indian Ocean.
However, regional concerns about China’s maritime behavior don’t stop with illegal fishing.
Experts also say China is using its fishing vessels as a paramilitary fleet in the resource-rich South China Sea. Beijing claims almost the entire waterway, and fishing vessels have played a key role in seizing disputed territories, including Vietnam’s Paracel Islands in 1974, and the Philippines’ Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal in 1995 and 2012.
In May last year, Manila again sounded the alarm over what it called “the incessant deployment, prolonged presence and illegal activities of Chinese maritime assets and fishing vessels” in the surrounding area. of Thitu Island, also known as the Pag-asa Islands. He said he spotted some 287 boats moored in the area.
Beijing said there was “no Chinese maritime militia as claimed” and the fishing vessels were simply sheltering from bad weather. But the United States said the boats had been hanging around the area for many months in increasing numbers regardless of the weather, while Beijing’s critics said they feared the ploy was part of its grand design. to move slowly through contested waters.
China’s maritime behavior is a “concern not only for the Quad, but also for Southeast Asian countries”, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations at King’s College London. “So I expect many countries to join [the IPMDA].”
“In my view, this is the first explicitly anti-China action the Quad has taken, as it clearly targets China,” Pardo said, noting that the Quad’s biggest move to date was on the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. “But we’ll have to see how effective it is.”
In Beijing, news of the Quad’s latest decision sparked contempt and concern.
Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that China is “actively fulfilling its obligations to relevant international law” and said “the building of small cliques and the confrontation of blocs are the real threat.” for a peaceful, stable and cooperative maritime order”.
An editorial in the Communist Party-owned tabloid Global Times meanwhile called the IPMDA “ridiculous”.
“It seems like a joke that Quad’s first substantive security action targets Chinese fishing boats,” wrote Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative. The move was intended only to stigmatize China, he said, and deny it the right to peaceful uses of the sea.
“The movement towards Chinese fishing vessels will likely only be an ‘appetizer’, Chinese government and coastguard vessels, as well as warships, will also become the next targets under surveillance. This is doable for the Quad’s broader monitoring system,” he added.
Others said the IPMDA was likely to escalate tensions between China and the Quad.
“The US-led Maritime Domain Awareness Partnership (IMPDA) is a thinly veiled justification for the creation of a surveillance network, aimed at criticizing the Chinese fishing industry,” said Einar Tangen. , a Beijing-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“This will be another irritant in what is a deteriorating international relationship.”