Bad weather was good news in Scarborough Shoal, a contested chain of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, Typhoon Butchoy forced a break in the two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels as diplomatic efforts faltered. For all it seemed the showdown was about naval power, oil resources, and China's inexorable rise, the Scarborough incident was really about one thing: the fish.
Consider it a lesson in how a common fishing run-in can turn into a crisis that can bring an entire region to its knees. Despite the overwhelming preoccupation with the potentially abundant energy reserves in the South China Sea, fishing has emerged as a larger potential driver of conflict. Countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam rely on the sea as an economic lifeline. And China is the largest consumer and exporter of fish in the world. And as overfishing continues to deplete coastal stocks through Southeast Asia, fishermen are venturing out further into disputed waters.
All this is worsening a trend of harassment, confiscation of catch and equipment, detention, and mistreatment of fishermen. Further fueling tensions is the way countries in the region are wielding unilateral fishing bans to assert jurisdiction over disputed waters under the pretext of environmental protection. Worryingly, the claims of sovereignty also serve to justify greater civilian patrols in the sea -- opening up still more possibilities of run-ins with fishing vessels. And when ships go bump in the night, growing nationalist sentiment limits governments' ability to resolve the disputes and sows the seeds for future problems.
China's uncoordinated approach significantly raises the risk of conflict in the region. Chinese coastal local governments actively encourage their fishermen to go further into disputed waters to enhance revenue and thereby government legitimacy. For example, by reducing licenses for smaller vessels, local governments force fishermen to upgrade and equip their boats with satellite navigations systems, allowing them to range ever-further from home -- and immediately inform Chinese law enforcement forces in the event of confrontation.
Meanwhile, several different Chinese civilian maritime law enforcement agencies directly compete with each other for budget and prominence by increasing the quality and quantity of their own vessels. Though less armed and less threatening than navy ships, civilian law enforcement ships are easier to deploy and engage more easily in skirmishes. This is why it is China's law enforcement vessels that have taken center stage in recent incidents, not the navy.
Of course, Beijing has other motives. Fishing incidents like Scarborough allow China to assert its sovereignty claims by deploying civilian law enforcement vessels to defend its territorial claims in what is now being referred to in some Chinese policy circles as the "Scarborough Shoal model." And more are likely on the way: There is talk now in China of how to ensure more regular presence of law enforcement vessels in other disputed areas.
As fishing grounds become the front lines for the underlying sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, one challenge for claimant states will be to separate out resource competition from assertions of territorial claims. So why not start with the fish? Agreements between claimant countries on protecting fish stocks could help ensure there's fish enough for everyone and reduce the risk of future conflicts.
But there is no getting around the fact that ASEAN, the only regional organization capable of playing a role, has been asleep at the helm. As Chinese and Philippine vessels stared each other down for more than two months, ASEAN remained divided. The current chair, Cambodia, keen to try to avoid upsetting China, blocked a statement that would have asked all parties to exercise restraint. The former chair, Indonesia, had to engage in behind-the-scenes mediation between China and the Philippines to try to dissolve the tension. Under Indonesia's chairmanship in 2011, ASEAN was finally able to agree to guidelines on a code of conduct for the South China Sea that had been under discussion for 10 years. Now, a binding code of conduct is under discussion that could go a long way toward avoiding future Scarboroughs. And that's no fish story.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is China and Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. She is based in Beijing.