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[All Politics is Global] The Curious Case of the Chinese Fishing Boat in the Indian Ocean

Although it cannot be confirmed, the capsized Chinese fishing boat is suspected of turning off its tracking systems to prevent the monitoring of its activities.



Chinese fishing vessel Lupeng Yuanyu. (Courtesy of North Pacific Fisheries Commission)

In the third week of May 2023, the Chinese deep-sea fishing vessel Lupeng Yuanyu 028 capsized and sank in the Indian Ocean. All 39 of its Chinese and international crew are missing, according to China's Ministry of Transport. The crew onboard included 17 people from China, 17 from Indonesia, and 5 from the Philippines. The location of the Chinese fishing boat was last tracked on May 10. It was in the southeast of Reunion, a tiny French island in the Indian Ocean, before it sank on May 16 (CST).

China deployed two commercial vessels to aid search-and-rescue operations. Meanwhile, other countries have extended emergency assistance following a distress beacon signal made from the fishing vessel. These include Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and the Philippines. Additionally, Australia has been liaising with the Chinese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and China Meteorological Administration to predict the drift of the missing crew.

The Lupeng Yuanyu boat was based in the eastern coastal province of Shandong. Specifically, it was operated by Penglai Jinglu Fishery Co, one of China's major state-run fishing companies. According to data from the North Pacific Fishing Commission, the boat was authorized to fish for neon flying squid and Pacific saury. It left Cape Town, South Africa on May 5, and was allegedly heading towards Busan, South Korea.

Disrupting Marine Ecosystems

The sinking of this Chinese fishing boat has raised larger questions. China's fishing fleet has completely depleted stocks in its own coastal waters. And it has been observed moving into the waters of neighboring countries. This has depleted the latter's fish stocks and disturbed their marine ecosystems.

In fact, Beijing is believed to operate the world's largest deep-sea fishing fleet. Many of its ships stay at sea for months, or even years, at a time. This cannot be possible without receiving support from Chinese state maritime security agencies and a sprawling network of support vessels.

Furthermore, Chinese squid fishing ships have been documented using wide nets to illegally catch already overfished tuna. This is part of a surge in unregulated fishing activity in the Indian Ocean, according to a 2021 report by a Norway-based environment protection group.

Chinese fishing boat
Chinese fishing vessel Lupeng Yuanyu. (Courtesy of North Pacific Fisheries Commission)

China's 'Fishing Fleet' Militia

Chinese maritime militia (海上民兵) is an armed fishing fleet. It is made up of an armed mass of military-trained personnel who serve as an irregular reserve force. And Beijing has been extending greater financial support to this irregular maritime force. Although the government-supported armed fishing force has a lower profile, it is still under the direct command and control of the People's Liberation Army

In order to enforce its maritime missions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Indian Ocean, Beijing works via annihilating the adversary with its flocks of fishing fleets. Meanwhile, it keeps the China Coast Guard nearby and PLA-Navy ships in the background. 

Through this setup, China maintains its covert "gray zone" operations, hanging ostensibly between peace and war. Most, if not all of China's maritime militia includes Chinese coastal fishermen. This renders it the saltwater element of China's national militia. 

The affiliation of the fishermen with the militia means that their vessels can be appropriated. Therefore, they can be taken over for training purposes and for conducting missions.


China's Growing Maritime Ambitions

The Lupeng Yuanyu could well have been preying on the marine resources of the Indian Ocean. Although it cannot be ascertained, it is suspected that the Chinese fishing vessel could have gone "dark." This means turning off its tracking systems to prevent the monitoring of its activities.

What adds to this suspicion is Chinese reports not identifying the exact location of the sinking. Instead, they have only revealed that it took place in the "center of the Indian Ocean." This could stretch anywhere from South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula to East Africa and Western Australia. So far, there has been no explanation for the cause of the sinking. However, adverse weather and high seas often play a key role in such incidents.

It is becoming amply clear that over the past decade, China has gradually upped the ante in the maritime realm in and around the Indian Ocean region. Evidently, China's cumulative maritime activity in the Indian Ocean is on the rise. And these mounting forays into the third-largest water body in the world point to China's expanding strategic naval footprint in the region.

This has been achieved by acquiring more maritime bases and berthing facilities. The long shadow of China's ports policy in the Indian Ocean is being driven and characterized by both state- and private-sponsored "infrastructure investment." 

It foretells strategic ramifications militarily. These facilities will end up becoming communication and surveillance facilities, in addition to being repair and replenishment centers for the Chinese Navy.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.

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