China's Hidden Maritime Ambition CSIS

The Issue:

China is building a network of fishing bases in developing countries across four continents. Comprising ports, boats, and fish processing plants, the bases service China’s distant-water fleet: an armada of over 4,600 vessels (potentially many more) that operates in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of 42 countries and accounts for 14 percent of worldwide marine catch by value. According to China’s latest Ocean Fishery Development Plan, the bases fall under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the umbrella project under which China is investing $1 trillion in global infrastructure. The plan calls distant-water fishing a tool to “build maritime power.”

China describes its overseas fishing bases as win-wins. Infrastructure investments create jobs in recipient countries. Deals that trade infrastructure for access to fisheries, meanwhile, sate Chinese demand for seafood. But the deals are often negotiated in secrecy and known only to a handful of officials in host country governments. Many appear one-sided, with countries ceding access to their marine resources while winning little in return. In fact, inviting in the Chinese distant-water fleet is risky; Chinese-flagged vessels are ranked the likeliest to illegally fish of the 152 fleets analyzed by Global Illegal Fishing Index.

Fishing bases also exemplify a broader challenge to sustainable development: states that lose sovereignty over their natural resources struggle to build from them a foundation for prosperity and peace. Environmental degradation has become a modern barrier to state success, so governments that cede control over resources—whether to internal criminals through corruption or to external actors through agreements such as fishing bases—can end up confronting linked security and sustainability crises. China’s burgeoning network of fishing bases, and the opacity of the bilateral fishing agreements they spring from, therefore raise three related sets of concerns.

The first and foremost is over sovereignty. Agreements that cede control of marine resources to China undermine the ability of countries to manage their fisheries, maintain their autonomy, and feed their people. This loss of sovereignty drives the other two concerns.

The second is over sustainability. States must exert sovereignty over their resources to develop them in a way that both generates growth and conserves marine ecosystems. Failure to do so can cause ecosystems to collapse, with devastating consequences for the people dependent on them. Moreover, states unable to manage their natural resources cannot achieve security.

The third is over security. Fishing bases undermine international security and U.S. interests in three ways: they increase instability by threatening livelihoods, provide China leverage over host country governments, and erode liberalism within developing states.


Maintaining sovereignty over fish matters because fish are a strategic resource. One billion people rely on seafood as their primary daily source of protein, including many of the world’s poorest, who will suffer hunger or malnutrition if stocks vanish. 203 million people depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. In many developing countries, prosperity is contingent upon control over fish.

Chinese Fish Imports and Exports
Chinese Fish Imports and Exports graphic

China’s government understands the strategic importance of seafood, and as its nearshore fisheries have deteriorated, China has implemented a strategy to appropriate fish from developing countries’ EEZs. China’s 2017 Ocean Fishery Development Plan refers to the distant-water fleet as a tool “guaranteeing the supply of high-quality aquatic products in China,” and “guaranteeing national food security.” Catch from abroad helps China adjust to a shifting seafood trade balance—Chinese seafood exports declined over 2018 even as imports increased by 14 percent, following a multiyear pattern. Because global ocean catch has been stable since the 1980s, increasing flows of fish toward China are offset by decreasing flows away from developing states. Fishing bases facilitate this shift.

Chinese Distant-Water Fisheries Catch
Chinese Distant-Water Fisheries Catch graphic

To its credit, China’s government has made an effort to rein in its distant-water fleet this year, releasing a new law that targets distant-water criminal vessels and implementing temporary closures for certain threatened fisheries. However, the isolation of distant-water vessels from Beijing—some do not return to China for years at a time—make these new measures difficult to enforce. And there is scant evidence so far that promising rhetoric has been followed with action.

Moreover, the fishing bases conform to a broad pattern of unsustainable investments undertaken under the BRI, from new coal power plants to deforestation-accelerating railroads. A flagship initiative of Xi Jinping, the BRI seeks to extend Chinese economic and soft power. Critics, however, have pointed out that deals under have eroded host country sovereignty by compelling debtor states to trade strategic assets for debt relief.

As part of the BRI, Chinese fishing bases undermine the ability of developing states to exercise sovereignty over their marine resources in two ways. First, many bases are the product of secret infrastructure-for-access deals whereby coastal states cede fishing rights within their waters to Chinese vessels in return for investments in port and processing infrastructure. In Mozambique, where a Chinese corporation is investing $120 million to expand Beira’s fishing port, a separate agreement giving fishing rights to 100 Chinese vessels apparently proceeded unbeknown to the country’s fishing minister. The terms of the latter deal are not public, so it is unclear whether the two are related, though Chinese vessels would certainly benefit from a refurbished, Chinese-owned port. Neither could researchers find public records for fishing base agreements in six other African countries: Mauritania, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau[CD1] , the Gambia, Angola, and Somalia. Absent public records, fishers cannot discern how much seafood has been surrendered to foreign fleets, and auditors cannot verify whether Chinese boats are adhering to agreements’ terms. Corrupt officials can be easily bribed to let Chinese vessels transgress limits. Without transparency, control over fish passes from states to a small interest group within state and, ultimately, to China.

Chinese fishing bases also undermine sovereignty by creating closed-loop seafood supply chains that shield marine resource outflows from the state’s gaze. Ports function as chokepoints in a fish’s path from hook to market. Governments that lack the resources to police large EEZs can inspect fish as they arrive in port to confirm they were caught outside protected areas, within catch limits, and by ethically treated workers. The significance of ports manifests in the Port States Measures Agreement (PSMA). Ratified by 65 countries and the European Union (including the United States, but not China), it commits port states to apprehending illegal catch offloaded by any vessel onto their shores. Fishing bases erode the Port State Measures system, however, by acting as private ports for Chinese vessels. For example, a fishing base in Uruguay—a country that has acceded to PSMA—would operate as a free trade zone, permitting China’s considerable fleet of Southwest Atlantic squid jiggers to unload catch free from Uruguayan regulations. (Negotiations over the Uruguayan base have been temporarily shelved following massive protests.) Other states hosting fishing bases endure weaker governance than Uruguay. They are likely to wind up unable to measure fishing effort in their waters as fishing bases shroud supply chains.

Because the countries where China is investing in fishing infrastructure abut largely ungoverned stretches of ocean, states that lose sovereignty over their fisheries will face worsened illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. In Northwest Africa, home to a constellation of fishing bases in seven countries from Ghana to Mauritania, IUU fishing accounts for nearly 40 percent of catch. Distant-water fishing in the region is carried out by both Asian and European fleets. But the Chinese fleet is by far the largest and appears to undertake IUU fishing the most often. Its 2,900 vessels in the region catch 3.1 million tons of fish, accounting in some countries for 80 percent of industrial catch. Worldwide, over 1,000 Chinese vessels have been found to engage in IUU fishing, including hundreds in Northwest Africa. In Ghana, Chinese industrial vessels are prolific practitioners of illegal saiko fishing, which drives up food prices for Ghanaians in the short term while depleting Ghana’s fisheries in the long term. Local crews that work on Chinese vessels are reportedly paid in “trash fish” rather than wages, leaving them substantially underpaid. Chinese vessels in the Southwest Atlantic, meanwhile, routinely spend years at sea, with workers trapped aboard. Fishing bases will make it easier for criminal captains to continue fishing illegal and mistreating workers.


Poor fisheries management already threatens to devastate ecosystems in the regions where China is constructing fishing bases, but the bases will likely exacerbate environmental stress. Stocks off West Africa and in the Southwest Atlantic are among the world’s least sustainable, with 45 and 50 percent overfished respectively. (The global average is 34 percent.) Overfishing is particularly dangerous when stocks collapse upon reaching tipping points rather than decline linearly. The Newfoundland Cod fishery famously reached a tipping point in 1992, when cod biomass fell to 1 percent of previous levels, destroying 37,000 jobs overnight. Namibia suffered a similar catastrophe in the 1970s due to Soviet trawling. A modern collapse in a food-insecure developing state would be fatal.

Climate change poses additional challenges, particularly in the tropics, where most Chinese fishing bases are located. Marine species ranges are moving poleward by 30 to 50 kilometers per decade. One study found that sardinella—a key species in Northwest Africa’s Canary Current—have moved 200 miles north since 1995. As high-latitude fisheries boom, tropical catch will bust. A University of British Columbia model predicts climate change will shrink West African catch by 21 percent before 2050. Tropical fish biomass is poised to halve by the end of the century.

Climate change will magnify the importance of good ocean governance because states will need to attune fisheries management to change to prevent disaster. But fishing bases make good governance harder. By shielding exploitation from view and undermining the PSMA, the bases leave states unable to control the amount of fish harvested from their waters and adjust catch allowances when stocks decline. Depleted ecosystems provide society fewer hard services, such as seafood, storm buffering, carbon sequestration, and marine genetic resources. They also offer fewer intangible benefits, such as the cultural value of nature and the beauty of coral reefs and ocean wildlife.


Fishing bases threaten international security and U.S. interests in three ways: they endanger livelihoods, increase China’s leverage over developing states, and weaken liberalism.


Overfishing, facilitated by Chinese bases, imperils the food security of millions of people. And hungry, unemployed people become likelier to take up arms. Somaliland’s foreign minister, Yasin Hagi Mohamoud, explains: “Across Africa, this disparity [between Chinese and local vessels] drains economies of billions of dollars, driving local fishermen into crime, terrorism and piracy.” A potential fishing base in Somalia threatens to exacerbate insecurity in the Horn of Africa.

But the problem appears most acute in West Africa, where artisanal fishing support millions of people, including 600,000 in Senegal alone—17 percent of the country’s workforce. In Guinea, meanwhile, 75 percent of the population (10 million people) may be vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies in scenarios with reduced access to seafood. Moreover, because fish migrate, overfishing in one country can harm people in another. Chinese fishing bases in Mauritania, for example, threaten food security in Senegal and the Gambia because critical sardinella stocks migrate between all three countries’ EEZs. West Africa’s waters are already the world’s most pirated, causing problems for U.S. shipping. Migrant flows from the region destabilize Europe as well. Collapsing ecosystems that increase hunger and unemployment would worsen both problems.


Another way fishing bases harm U.S. interests is by increasing governments’ dependency on China, thereby giving Beijing leverage over developing states. Opaque infrastructure-for-access agreements benefit elites, who become privy to investment opportunities and, sometimes, bribes. They harm fishers unable to compete with Chinese industrial vessels. Government legitimacy then becomes more dependent on continued Chinese largesse and less on popular support.

China can also coerce developing states through direct control over fisheries. Fish undergird public welfare in many countries across West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Disruptions to the seafood supply in those countries is likely to drive instability with the potential to threaten ruling regimes. China can therefore use its control over other state’s fisheries, exerted via fishing bases and distant-water fleets, to pressure states into supporting China in a crisis, or into aligning with China’s positions on political issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. China’s has proved willing to use its leverage over other states’ economies to achieve political goals, for example ordering tour operators to stop selling packages to Taiwan-friendly Palau. The United States will be less secure in a world where developing states are coerced by hook and by net into aligning with China.


Finally, opaque fishing bases undermine the rules-based liberal order that has helped the United States flourish over the last 70 years. Corruption around fishing base agreements weakens liberalism within countries by enabling rent-seekers and despots to remain in power and unaccountable. But the more pernicious impact of those agreements is the way they shift ocean governance from multilateral fora to a collection of unequal bilateral relationships.

China’s size disadvantages small states when they negotiate bilateral deals, particularly when China is a country’s largest trading partner, as China frequently is. Beijing has less relative power when negotiating multilateral agreements. Thus, smaller countries tend to win better deals when they negotiate under the auspices of liberal international institutions, such as the United Nations. The United States and small countries benefit from a transparent, rules-based order.

Ocean health benefits as well. Because the ocean is a shared space, and because marine life does not respect state boundaries, its sustainable governance depends on multilateral agreements. An ocean governed by competition, fought out through uncoordinated bilateral agreements, will fall victim to the tragedy of the commons. The United States benefits from a healthy ocean that affords prosperity to the peoples on its shores. If the ocean is instead compartmentalized into spheres of influence over resources, rather than governed as a shared space based on rules, the United States will suffer.


As an emerging great power, China’s behavior in any one sector necessarily drives trends and shapes or distorts international norms. This influence is multiplied in the area of international marine resources and global ocean sustainability both because of China’s massive demand and market presence and also because of the relative absence of similar presence from the United States and the European Union in terms of distant water fleets. This lack of a counterbalancing force in tonnage must be bolstered by an increased demand, through the soft power of governance and markets, for commitments to multilateralism, international norms, and governance. Most importantly, China should be held to account for standards of sustainability and equity in the use and management of marine resources.