Wolf warriors in China should be cautious

The seemingly rapacious nature of Chinese fishing fleets continue to be an issue.

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Published by The Vibes & New Straits Times, image from The Vibes.

The world has been dominated by the West since 1492. The history is yet too complex, ironically, too simple, to be told in one breath, given the fact that it was nothing but waves after waves of colonialism.

One can of course side with the thesis of Robinson and Gallagher, a theory often taught to students of Harvard University, that more often than now western powers such as Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, were all “sucked” into the local conflicts. 

These powers, for the lack of better word, preferred to stick to the space or other trades, often at the ports and river banks, rather than deep into the interiors of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

If all of the above are true, the West was not entirely at fault for colonialism per se. Rather, they were dragged into the conflicts in the hinterland or inner part of the “colonies”.

The fact that one can witness the isolationist tendencies of the US now, or the brazen attempt of the UK, to withdraw itself from the European Union, is all but a sign that tendencies of great powers want to subject everyone to permanent conquest exists between sheer facts but also myth.

Great powers such as China should not mis-read history. That they are being encircled by the West and Japan, and potentially, India and the EU too. 

As Professor He Kai at Griffith University wrote in an op-ed in South China Morning Post, that if a large part of the world is suspicious of the grand designs of China, it is high time to seek some deep “self-introspection”.

One of those issues is the seemingly rapacious nature of the Chinese civilian fishing fleets. Be they in the south of the East China Sea, they have continued to venture far and away. 

The latest report by The Guardian, a reliable British newspaper that specialises in fact-checking all their materials before publishing them, have found more than 300 illegal Chinese vessels fishing off the coast of Ecuador.

This is not a trivial matter at all. If Chinese fishing fleets can spend up to 73,000 hours fishing in the territorial waters of Ecuador, then something must be remiss. Nor is this the first time.

When these Chinese fishing fleets are there, they switch off their communication systems, making them a nuisance to other ships and coast guards that have to guard the territorial seas of Ecuador, which exists at the top of Latin America.

Imagine the same thing happening to the coastal waters of Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, the coast of Johor, Sarawak and Sabah.

The value of marine wild lives in Malaysian waters are estimated to be close to US$1.3 billion. 

What about Indonesia? In recent months, even President Joko Widodo has had to show his presence in Natuna Island of Indonesia. Why? 

Once again, a flotilla of Chinese fishing ships, sometimes allowed by the Chinese coast guards to arm themselves to the teeth, are in the North Natuna Sea. 

Little wonder all 300 million Indonesians are enraged. With the exception of Vietnam and perhaps Thai fishing fleets, Malaysia has tried to be very careful not to breach the sovereign waters of Indonesia, which is why the bilateral relationship of the two littoral states of the Strait of Malacca, is always strong. 

China has to be more cautious with its unregulated fishing fleets, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi has affirmed that he wants the Code of Conduct on South China Sea to be completed by next year. 

If Chinese diplomats do not take the maritime territories of other countries seriously, this is akin to allowing the “wolf warriors” or the diplomats of China to insist they are always right. 

This is the worst way to start of 2021, which will be less than a quarter a way, especially given the fact that the pandemic can become endemic for a while yet.  

All sides need to show exemplary behavior and good will, regardless of the size of their power metrics.

Last but not least, Chinese fishing vessels should not engage in this egregious behaviour to chase Indonesian, potentially, Malaysia vessels off their very own waters.

If this becomes the new normal at sea, then China has fallen into the trap of being way too assertive than any diplomatic propriety permits.

One solution, as many have suggested, is to understand how Malaysia solved its maritime dispute with Singapore, over the ownership of Pulau Batu Putih, at the International Court of Justice. 

When China puts more attention on the application of proper maritime dispute, even appealing against the verdict, that’s when China and all its neighbours can handle their bilateral and multilateral relationships deeply, with sheer respect to all sides, and all aspects of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas.

Dr. Rais Hussin is President & CEO of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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