China’s disputed maritime claims pose food security threat, say analysts

(FMT) – Malaysia’s food security may be at risk with China attempting to encroach on an economic zone in the South China Sea exclusive to Sabah and Sarawak, analysts said.

On Aug 28, Beijing unveiled the 2023 China Standard Map which claims a significant portion of Malaysian waters near Sabah and Sarawak as within its contentious “nine-dash line” maritime border marking of the South China Sea.

The map appears to claim almost the entire sea as within the Chinese maritime border.

In 2016, an international court ruled that China’s claims – which overlap those of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines – have no legal basis. Beijing has rejected the ruling.

International Islamic University Malaysia’s Yazid Zul Kepli said Malaysia relies on the disputed waters to meet its domestic demand for seafood and to support the fishing industry.

He said China’s claim would have a negative impact on the livelihood of Malaysian fishermen and threaten a significant source of food.

“These disputes can disrupt fishing activities and create uncertainty for Malaysia’s fishermen, potentially deterring them from venturing into disputed areas, thus impacting fishing yields and overall food security,” the maritime law expert told FMT.

Illegal fishing

Yazid said the presence of foreign fishing vessels, including those from China, has resulted in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices in the South China Sea.

He said IUU fishing undermines the sustainability of marine resources and decreases fish stocks which impacts the country’s food security.

He called on the government to empower fishermen in both states so that they can venture into deeper waters to harvest precious catch now being taken away by foreign IUU fishing.

“We need to assert control over our waters to combat poaching and illegal fishing by foreign vessels. Beyond fish, the sea also holds valuable marine resources such as untapped oil and gas reserves.

“Control of these resources can greatly contribute to the country’s economic growth and energy security, too,” he said.

Diplomatic channels

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Salawati Mat Basir said the Chinese have made their presence felt in the South China Sea, with many artificial islands built in disputed areas.

She said a 2021 report by the US coast guard showed the Chinese nationals, including militiamen posing as fisherfolk, were actively carrying out fishing in Malaysian waters.

However, Salawati said, Malaysia has always steadfastly defended its waters through diplomatic means.

She said such dealings are usually conducted behind closed doors.

“Our envoys at Wisma Putra are doing their best to ensure consultations with China are to Malaysia’s advantage. It also helps that China is open to talks with Malaysia.

“We have to understand that we are facing two big superpowers – China and the US. We have to tread carefully,” the international law academic said.

Salawati said the dispute in the South China Sea was also a test of Asean’s centrality, as the grouping is responsible for protecting the waters. It must act to prevent a prolonged crisis, she said.

She said any joint statement on the South China Sea should be worded carefully as China remains Malaysia’s largest trading partner.

Malaysia is still a net importer of fish to the tune of RM6 billion annually.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Malaysia imported US$976.6 million (RM4.57 billion) worth of fish and fisheries products in 2017.