The dual threats of dwindling fish stocks and Chinese aggression have made life increasingly difficult for fishermen in the South China Sea. The area is one of the world’s most important fisheries, employing almost 4 million people in fishing. Now, decades of overfishing are catching up and threatening both the individual livelihoods of fishermen and the economic growth of countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. To make matters worse, China is becoming more assertive in its claim that it has historical rights to almost the entire South China Sea. Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen have complained of harassment at the hands of Chinese vessels, including suffering attacks with water cannons.

The South China Sea encompasses 3.7 square kilometers and is an avenue for 5.3 trillion dollars in international trade every year. Parts of the South China Sea are claimed by seven countries: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. With the US also having ties to some of the countries in this region, the potential for tension between regional and world powers is immense. China claims a U-shaped chunk of the sea under their influence, which includes wide swaths of the land also claimed by these other countries.

The dispute over territory has been compounded by competition over fish, and in turn, the competition has been intensified by the dispute, which further depletes fish stocks. Parts of the South China Sea are estimated to have a tenth of the fish stocks they once had, with sought-after fish such as Tuna and Grouper especially badly hit. Local fishermen are caught in the middle of this vicious cycle, forced to go further into disputed waters to find fish. Meanwhile, China subsidizes their own fishing vessels to go 500 kilometers to the south to the disputed Spratly Islands in order to consolidate their claim on the area. Beijing also equips their fishermen with GPS and communications tools so that they can contact the coast guard if they have problems with foreign law enforcement, or if they spot fishermen from other countries.

The tensions have played out into concrete encounters between regional powers, with the threat of global conflict clearly present. In one incident, when Indonesian maritime law enforcement tried to arrest Chinese fisherman in Indonesian waters, an armed Chinese coast guard vessel arrived and rammed the Chinese fishing boat to free it from the Indonesian law enforcement. Such encounters are disturbing in a region that could easily become a flashpoint for conflict between global powers. To make matters worse, locals who are reliant on fishing for their livelihoods are caught in the middle.

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