What Ecuador’s spat with Chinese fishermen can teach Latin America about responding to China

A Chinese fishing fleet off the coast of Ecuador caught headlines and the attention of Washington. The situation was swiftly resolved through Ecuador's collective diplomatic action


2020 is no 2017, as commandeering ships and arresting Chinese fishermen has given way to vigilant, but reserved, patrolling and negotiations. This response by the Ecuadorians to a “flotilla” of Chinese fishermen off its coast shows a path for a new, successful strategy in Chinese-Latin American relations. The fishermen that were observed in mid-July in the international waters between the Galapagos Islands and the Ecuadorian coast have left the sensitive space between the two Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Moreover, the fishing boats appear to be retreating around the islands back into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. 

Further strengthening Ecuador’s position, on August 5 China agreed to hold bilateral talks on the issue and to allow Ecuador to supervise the ships, even though they are technically outside of Ecuador’s sovereign territory. This apparent victory provides key lessons about the short-term and longer-term strategies that countries in the hemisphere should take when managing their relations with China.

Latin American and U.S. media coverage fanned the flames of alarm, making it appear that Ecuador was in a high-stakes naval standoff with a Chinese armada, with the Ecuadorian Navy “mobilized” and on “high alert”. In one instance, a columnist portrayed the situation as so grave as to warrant preparations by both the local Navy and the Americans to launch submarines and missiles against the fishing vessels. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that it was yet another troubling instance of Chinese bullying and “rule-breaking”. Both U.S. Southern Command and the American National Security Council tweeted their support for the Ecuadorians in the midst of the tense situation. 

Yet, international newspapers and American politicians have exaggerated the true nature and extent of the threat this time. While it is true that the number of boats was slightly higher than normal—in 2019, about 240 Chinese fishermen set their sights on the waters outside the Galapagos—it is hard to argue that the presence of 20 additional ships this year was outrageous. The boats reportedly did not break any international laws or norms, and they never invaded the EEZ. Most importantly, these boats off the Galapagos are nothing new. Chinese ships, as well as those from other countries, have been fishing off the Ecuadorian coast for years.  

Just as fishing in those waters is not new, tensions and threats about fishing near the Galapagos date back for decades. During the 1970s, the United States and Ecuador faced off in the “Tuna War” when American fishermen refused to pay fees or notify the Ecuadorian government about their activities. In more recent years, hundreds of Chinese vessels have parked themselves along the EEZ that protects the Galapagos, and tensions reached a boiling point in 2017. During that first year of Lenin Moreno’s presidency, a Chinese boat was seized after illegally poaching in the delicate habitat; ultimately, four of the crew members were given jail sentences. Ironically enough, that ship, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, was just recommissioned into the Ecuadorian Navy as the Hualcopo, providing another reminder to Chinese fishermen of the risks they run.

That being said, Ecuador’s concerns from this July were not completely unfounded, as the fishing did pose some threat to local biodiversity. The diverse array of fish and sharks that call the Galapagos and Ecuadorian coast home are unaware of the border between protected waters around the Galapagos and the unprotected international ocean, and fishermen from any country could disrupt this balance. Allaying these fears of environmental degradation required prompt and effective action.

Both diplomacy and enforcement have played roles in Ecuador achieving its short-term goals. The administration was vigilant, as was demonstrated by the Ecuadorian Navy’s increased patrols throughout its waters to prevent illegal crossing into the EEZ. While a naval show of force gripped headlines, private diplomacy through an official complaint to the Chinese embassy also helped. It caught the central government’s attention and they headed off the ships. In addition to bilateral diplomacy, China faced repeated condemnation as Ecuador convinced its Pacific neighbors to swiftly criticize the fishermen, further bolstering Ecuador’s diplomatic position. 

In the longer-term, Ecuador’s decision to call on the members of the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific (CPPS), namely Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Panama, to warn the Chinese against further provocation may indicate the start of a new chapter of unified Latin American strategy with the People’s Republic of China. Due to Ecuador’s action, CPPS has already agreed to share satellite tracking resources and to create a working group to find longer-term solutions against unsustainable and illegal fishing practices—practices that Chinese vessels have been known to rely on.

Collective agreement on how ships should operate along these countries’ common coasts, as well as the sharing of resources between these comparatively smaller states, can only improve their ability to protect natural resources and uphold local fishermen’s rights. Upcoming meetings by the CPPS working group to iron out details will provide an opportunity for these Pacific nations to create a unified strategy that could prevent similar incidents in the future. This opportunity cannot be squandered. Without a regional strategy in place, Chinese fishermen are likely to continue aggravating governments and locals up and down the South American Pacific Coast. 

A common strategy among neighbors would provide these Latin American states with the ability to exert the necessary pressure to preserve their citizen’s fishing and the delicate oceanic habitats. Each of the countries that form the CPPS individually have GDPs no bigger than the U.S. state of Maryland, but when combined, they have the economic power of regional heavyweights like Mexico. This larger footprint makes it more difficult for an economic powerhouse like China to blithely swat away complaints, much like how China has had a hard time ignoring recent Brazilian concerns about Huawei.

On their own, smaller states across the region like Ecuador will have trouble attracting China’s attention or pushing their agenda, but collective action with regional neighbors, such as policies implemented through proven inter-governmental organizations like the CPPS, will prove more effective. 

Ethan Knecht is a Program Administrator and Deputy Director at International Business-Government Counsellors. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, and he formerly worked at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and the Inter-American Dialogue. 


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