Monday, 15 August, 2022
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Quad wants to stop illegal fishing in Indo-Pacific. But the net is actually for one shark

Quad’s provision to curb illegal fishing is likely to remain unimplementable. But platforms established for the flow of information could certainly serve strategic functions.

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Global geopolitics visited the Indo-Pacific region once again thanks to the Quad’s deepened efforts to enhance cooperation. A wide range of issues was reflected in the Joint Statement following the meeting of Quad leaders in Tokyo on 24 May 2022. China had in 2018 commented that the Quad would dissipate like sea foam. But in 2020, it shifted its view and described the grouping as an ‘Asian NATO’. Russia has also opposed the Quad. Strategically, the intent of measures as described in the Joint Statement should mainly invoke China’s fear of major powers ganging up against it. Though China and Russia do not figure in the Statement, their presence is writ large as the forces that need to be confronted. China, in particular, as the global geopolitical competition is about Beijing’s advancing rise in power.

The contestation’s essential argument is that China is undermining the rules-based international order threatening global activities in the maritime domain. Unhindered flow of economic activities is a prime concern. The concern mainly arises from the disagreements rooted in claims of sovereignty. The claims relate mostly to the waters of the South China Sea and East Asia.

On the day the Quad met, China and Russia carried out airborne military exercises in contiguous areas of Japan and South Korea. The message to the Quad was unmistakable. Strategically, China’s concern is about its competitors closing ranks across several fields of the international system. The field that this article relates to information sharing and its utility.


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Beyond illegal fishing

The information-sharing field has been named the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). It is designed to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters and combat illegal fishing. The idea is to integrate regional information fusion centres in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In the strategic competition, sharing of information is key. Strategically, it has heft as the integrated capacity created can also be used for military purposes. Though some mechanisms for sharing information already exist, it is a renewed thrust.

Cooperation in disaster and humanitarian relief often involves military assets of different countries that must be able to operate together. The communication integration achieved is fungible and can be utilised for political and military purposes. However, apart from stated intentions, no concrete moves to combat illegal fishing have been announced.

Notably, combating overfishing is part of other goals in the United Nations List of Sustainable Development Goals. Reports emanating from the West indicate that China leads in overfishing activities. But overfishing is difficult to prove. The more complicated part of the plethora of activities connected to illegal fishing is the friction generated by maritime claims based on the United Nations Conventions of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) wherein Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) provide geography based rights to nations for control of economic activities within the Zones.

It is difficult to envisage how the Quad can be the policeman to enforce an international agreement except with the concurrence of the United Nations. Moreover, the US has not ratified the UNCLOS but maintains that it recognises the UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law. According to a report by a private organisation based in Geneva, the two leaders in illegal fishing are China and Russia. South Korea and Japan too are high on the list. The US’ is also fairly high on the violator’s list. It would therefore be interesting to observe how the Quad will progress in combating illegal fishing.


Also read: With Russia-China bombers, Quad has to be all for one and one for all. Nothing less will do


A strategic net

Under Article 73 of the UNCLOS, a Coastal State is empowered to exercise its sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the living resources in the Exclusive Economic Zones, and take such measures, including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings, as may be necessary to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations adopted by it in conformity with this convention. It also mandates actions to be undertaken for the release of vessel and crew and places restrictions on punishments that can be imposed unless there are existing mutual agreements on punishments.

Speedy and accurate provision of information regarding illegal fishing to a Coastal State could improve its capacity to enforce its rights of sovereignty. But such provision will be restricted to information. Assistance from other countries without United Nations approval in the actual enforcement is impermissible. The assumed/claimed role of the Quad in curbing illegal fishing is therefore questionable. But the Quad should be understandably concerned about the utilisation of fishing activities as a cover for intelligence and other prohibited activities.

Prohibited activities carried out by a fishing vessel in the EEZ can be checked by a Coastal State through boarding and inspection. In the backdrop of China’s contested claims in the South China Sea and East Asia, it can claim the boarding and inspection powers derived from EEZ sovereignty. Such disputes are not at present observable in the Indian Ocean Region of the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, smaller nations of the world do not have the required capacity to enforce the powers of the Coastal State, if the violator is China. China’s fishing vessels are globally present, especially in areas where Coastal States cannot contest. Some Coastal States have voiced their concerns that have understandably fallen on deaf ears.

India has a coastline of about 7,500 km and the EEZ for that, obtained as per the UNCLOS, covers an approximate area of 2.172 million sq km. India’s claims on its resources must be balanced with the demands of freedom of navigation. In India’s case, its concerns are not so much about illegal fishing. Instead, it should be about its inability to fully exploit the resources of its EEZ.

The provision to curb illegal fishing on the agenda of the Quad is likely to remain unimplementable. But platforms established for the flow of information regarding illegal fishing could certainly serve strategic functions. When combined with cooperative initiatives in infrastructure, cyber security, critical and emerging technologies and space, the scale of cooperation envisaged is striking. The political push by the leadership of the Quad countries seems promising. India has placed a strategic bet on the grouping after initial reluctance. The proof of the Quad pudding will however be in eating! Time will tell.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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