Storm Ahead: Chinese Fishing Vessels in Chilean Waters

A Chinese fishing fleet is approaching Chilean waters. Little noticed, the fleet has been circling Latin America for years, according to officials. While no country has been happy about it, recent openly expressed concerns could signal the beginning of changing relations with Beijing.

China’s hungry for resources. Feeding its massive population is no small feat. To this adds a growing middle class that’s not satisfied with just dumplings anymore. China is trying to feed this population – and make money – by fishing off Latin American coasts. A fleet of up to 270 vessels has been traversing international waters near Latin American countries for years. Last July, however, the fleet became news for the first time because Ecuador worried so much that the fleet could destroy squid populations in the protected Galapagos area that it asked Chile for help.

Since then, the fleet has since moved toward Peru, where the US embassy jumped on the opportunity and tweeted unverified information about it. While Peruvian officials were also worried about the fleet, they quickly committed to the country’s Chinese relationship and asked to embassy to tone it down, Reuters reported.

Now, the fleet is on its way to Chilean waters. News outlet Biobío Chile reported that navy officials expect it to arrive between November and February, depending on the behavior of the squid the ships are after. But the outlet also reported that the navy has been monitoring this fleet for years, spending resources to ensure it won’t engage in illegal fishing in Chilean waters.

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Counterintuitive Concerns

The concerns seem counterintuitive at first. Latin American countries don’t care about China’s human rights violations, the concentration camps and genocide in Xinjiang. They care about investments and markets so they can keep growing. Some would rightly argue these countries  don’t have a choice. Europe and the US don’t have the necessary capital anymore to generate the growth the region has experienced over the last years. While regional capital has also emerged, it’s still not enough to replace China’s investments.

From a liberal perspective, China is a great choice because it’s cooperative. Multilateralism, especially when it brings economic benefits, is always worthwhile for those who believe cooperation will create a better world. And left-wingers, weirdly, see China as a great partner to stick it to the US-American capitalists. In this context, China has been welcomed in the region, with some countries, like Panama, even changing long-standing policies on Taiwan.

But China, has grown bolder and more assertive too. In Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong it has engaged in massive repression and even genocidal practices. In the South China Sea it destroyed ecosystems to create military bases and intimidate Taiwan. Latin American countries have kept mum about all of this, as expected. And Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet even promised to develop journalism training programs with China, where journalist are habitually jailed.

Will Chile Respond on the Chinese Fleet?

China still has every reason to expect Chile remains obedient. Government palace La Moneda, however, would have to act if the navy detected illegal fishing or if the public demands action. Potentially having to show Beijing the limits of what investments and a pretense of friendship could buy, would turn into a veritable headache.

Absent these developments, nothing will happen for now. Latin American countries will probably not band together. Each will try to moderate its response and not anger China too much. Regional cooperation on the issue could mean that one government says something with repercussions for another.

Yet, incidents like these, where China is taking resources other countries see as their own, will become more frequent and forceful. China must provide jobs and satisfaction to its population, and can’t be seen to be unable to take what it wants. Beijing is also aware of the dependence countries like Chile develop on its market, even though Latin America perceives this dependence as neutrality. Yet, when not even the US can remain economically independent of China, no one can, especially not within the the framework of capitalism.

Still, Ecuador’s call for help is unprecedented, as is coverage of the issue in Chilean media. This might well be the first sign of a turning point in Sino-Chilean relations. Policymakers and analysts would do well to start looking at potential negative consequences that positive economic interaction could bring. They need to stop using terms like ‘Chinese interests’ as buzzwords and grapple with what these interests involve.

Also read:

Cooperation and Covid-19: The View from Chile and South America

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