Four allied countries are working on a new high-tech method of cracking down on illegal fishing, one of the Asia-Pacific region’s biggest issues at sea. The initiative would hold violators accountable and draw countries together for the cause.

The satellite-based surveillance proposed by leaders of the Quad countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — would focus on China, the region’s biggest fishing nation, and Beijing is already upset.

On May 24, the Quad — formally the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — launched its Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness to monitor unregulated fishing in the territorial waters of multiple coastal states.

Its initiative will use satellite technology to connect existing maritime surveillance centers and create a tracking system for illegal fishing. It would watch waters around Southeast Asia and into the South Pacific, both places where Chinese fishing fleets commonly trawl. The White House says the initiative will look for vessels whose transponder systems are switched off to avoid detection.

“I’m almost certain that (China will) be pointing to these kinds of plans as again more indications of the U.S. taking on an anti-China kind of stance,” said Herman Kraft, a political science professor at University of the Philippines at Diliman.

China has already voiced its opposition.

“The Quad hypes up and incites a so-called ‘China threat’ and sows discord between regional countries and China,” said Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Washington. “This is deliberately provoking confrontation and undermining international solidarity and cooperation. China firmly opposes this.”

The Quad will need help from other countries in setting up the surveillance system, Kraft said. Taiwan has expressed interest in joining, and Southeast Asian states may follow, some analysts say.

Fishing half a world from home

China’s deep-water fishing fleet, which is the world’s largest and still growing, comprises about 17,000 boats, the think tank ODI said in 2020. At least 183 vessels are suspected of illegal or unregulated activity, according to ODI.

Chinese fishing vessels working in the South China Sea have formed an armed fishing militia, observers say, able to help defend disputed island claims in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway.

Illegal overfishing in the Pacific as far east as Hawaii has hurt the economies of island nations, Radio Free Asia reported in April 2021.

Chinese officials resent the Quad’s surveillance because it will spotlight illegal acts and let others “call them out,” said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

Success in spotting an illegal fishing vessel by satellite would allow countries that discover illegal fishing to track a vessel back to port rather than using coast guard resources to chase it, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Singapore or the Philippines, for example, could track units of the South China Sea fishing militia effectively and at relatively low cost, Poling said.

Once a boat is tracked from illegal fishing grounds to a port, governments can identify the vessel’s owner.  

China has mounted its own satellite-based sea surveillance system over the past few years, Poling said, and it can do little to counter the Quad’s surveillance of its fishing fleets.

“It can complain about this, but what’s it going complain about? That it has the right to illegally fish wherever it wants?” Poling said. “That’s a bad play.”

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs this year announced its own fishing moratoriums in parts of the high seas, including the international waters of the north Indian Ocean, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported May 25.

Officials in Beijing will respond foremost to the Quad’s initiative by increasing verbal pressure on Quad countries, Davis predicted.

“There’s not much they (China) can do, but they can say a lot, so they’ll put a lot of coercive pressure on the Quad members,” he said. “But really, the Quad members aren’t going to be coerced.”