On January 19th,2021, the Government of Vanuatu reported the apprehension of two Chinese trawlers off the island of Hiu on suspicion of illegal activities. This is not an isolated act. In fact, lots of chinese fisherman threatening the maritime sovereignty of coastal states were reported, particularly in the Pacific Ocean.
Chinese fishermen cause concern near the Galapagos Islands
In 2019, NGOs and Galapagos inhabitants had already alerted the government about the presence of Chinese fishermen in the area.In the summer of 2020, more than 300 vessels have been identified in the vicinity of the Galapagos Nature Reserve.
Even if this is not theoretically forbidden, it raises a lot of concern. According to the former mayor of Quito Roque Sevilla, “the uncontrolled Chinese fishermen right on the edge of the protected area is ruining Ecuador’s efforts to protect Galapagos marine life.”
This threatens the environment and the sustainable use of the Pacific Ocean’s fisheries resources.
For Defence Minister Oswaldo Jarrin, the concern is that this Chinese fleet could penetrate or infiltrate the Ecuadorian EEZ, hence the importance of asserting Ecuadorian sovereignty over its maritime territory.
France, a key player in the Pacific
France, which has a special place as a Pacific nation, has made the protection of its maritime territory a priority.
Indeed, it is striving to maintain its position in the global competition for maritime sovereignty.
To defend its interests in the Pacific, France maintains permanent defence forces with the presence of 2900 military personnel, 7 ships and 16 aircrafts.
These forces ensure the protection and security of French territories and the control of EEZs. They participate in different activities like rescue operations and fight against trafficking.
But France must still be able to intervene everywhere in its EEZs and to control them. It must be sufficiently dissuasive to prevent possible territorial claims or illegal behaviour.
Chinese fishing is (almost) pervasive in the Pacific
Of all the independent states in the South Pacific that are having their fish resources plundered by Chinese fishermen, only the waters of French Polynesia and New Caledonia are spared.
This is the challenge entrusted to the French Navy, whose mission is to control a territory of over 7 million km². Recognised as one of the most efficient navies in the world, it must counter the ambitions of new maritime players, including China. The Middle Kingdom has the largest fishing fleet in the world with 17,000 vessels, according to a study led by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Within the Polynesian area, France has established partnerships with autonomous Pacific countries. The country offers its assistance in rescue missions and in the fight against pollution and illegal fishing, in particular by radar and satellite means.
However, if France one day struggles to exercise its sovereignty over its own territory, it is very likely that these countries, for their security and development, might later fall into the lap of other powers.
Indeed, beyond the fisheries resources, the wealth of maritime territories is not only on the surface. 10% of the planet’s ‘rare earth’ resources are found in the soil of the oceans. It should be remembered that these resources, which are sometimes found more than 5,000 metres underwater, are necessary for lots of modern industries.
Even though until now their exploitation has been too costly to be profitable, the scarcity of resources on the continents makes them increasingly interesting. Thus, the sale of exploration and exploitation permits is certainly the challenge of tomorrow.
For the moment, the weakness of the means committed to maintaining French sovereignty in the Pacific and more widely across the globe is compensated by organizational excellence.
In fact, France can rely on its Joint Maritime Centres. These centres pool all the resources present in the Pacific EEZs. They bring together the French Navy, the Air Force, the gendarmerie, the police and customs forces as well as maritime affairs and civil security resources.
Therefore, in order to face the major security challenges in the region, France wishes to contribute to the establishment of a regional security architecture.
Already active in several fora for multilateral dialogue in the Pacific, it has in particular initiated a process of rapprochement with the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting (ADMM+). This is a forum for multinational cooperation between the defence ministries of ASEAN and partner countries whose mission is to ensure development and stability in the region.
It should be stated that this stability is necessary to defend, otherwise there will be a general weakening of the law of the sea and thus an increase in inter-state tensions.
By carrying out cooperative actions with 18 partners during the latest deployment of the Naval Air Group (NAG) in the framework of the Clémenceau 21 mission, France is bringing its experience to the countries of the region. It also applies its operational know-how, particularly in the field of maritime security. In this way, it contributes to the creation of an area of peace and security based on respect for international law throughout the Pacific.