Somali fishing communities have expressed concerns that a “debt trap diplomacy”-linked deal between their government and China has granted Beijing a license to exploit their livelihoods legally, Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported this week.
“It’s shocking to see the ministry of fisheries signing such a one-sided contract with a Chinese company,” Abdirizak Mohamed, a Somali lawmaker representing a coastal region, told RFI. ”It actually gives China the advantage.”
Competition between foreign and domestic fishing for declining resources can lead to the increased occurrence and intensity of conflict between the fleets. … Not only does this pit local fishers in competition against each other, it increases the chances that a Somali vessel will encounter a foreign one, increasing the likelihood of conflict
Somali lawmaker Mohamed agreed with the NGO’s assessment of the negative impact the Chinese deal will have on local fishing communities, telling RFI:
There are small-scale fishing communities that have been suffering from the illegal fishing that has been taking place in our high seas; if you add that to the fact that they have the legal right to exploit our resources, then I think that we will even suffer more. Everyone is speaking about this, expressing their concerns.
Somalia has the longest coastline of any African nation. In December 2018, the Somali government granted fishing licenses to 31 vessels tied to the China Overseas Fisheries Association for one year, with the ability to renew the agreement each year.
While the deal only allows Beijing to fish 24 nautical miles from Somalia’s coast, the local fishing communities worry that the African country’s government is unable to ensure that China respects those boundaries. Furthermore, Somalis believe their government is unable to vet the Chinese vessels’ catch for overfishing.
Stig Jarle Hansen, professor of international relations at the University of Life Sciences in Oslo, told RFI:
I don’t see any credible Somali control mechanism emerging in the foreseeable future. This has to be based on the trust between the Chinese government and the Somali government – it’s a long shot. Indeed, a lot of the countries in East Africa that haven’t experienced a civil war don’t fully control their offshore territories, either.
The analyst also conceded that Somalia lacks a strong navy required to stop overfishing. Somali fishermen are also concerned that the deal will ultimately foment piracy in the region.
“One of the key underlying reasons for piracy off the Somali shores was the depletion of seafood resources through illegal fishing by foreign companies,” Quartz reported in December 2018 in the wake of the Somalia-China fishing pact.
Mohamed, who served as Somalia’s minister of the interior, also noted:
The narrative here, again and again, is because of illegal fishing, this has forced many fisheries to engage in criminal activities such as piracy. And now, as China is legally entering the business, local fishermen are not going to get anything. It might reorganize them, reenergize them to engage in these criminal activities again.
Analyst Hansen, however, does not think the deal will stoke piracy.
“I don’t see it as a factor for the restart of piracy but I see it as a factor in a tragedy because one of the solutions that was implemented to stop piracy was the use of private security guards,” he said.
RFI acknowledged that it reached out to the Somali Fisheries Ministry for comment, to no avail.
Somali officials have refuted accusations that a China used “debt trap diplomacy” to get fishing licenses.
An expert from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy explained:
China has often been accused of practicing “debt-trap diplomacy”—miring supposed partners, particularly developing countries, in unsustainable debt-based relationships. … Claims about China’s debt-trap diplomacy unquestioningly assume that China’s own economic and geostrategic interests are maximized when its lending partners are in distress.
Critics of the deal reportedly claim China promised to rebuild a seaport in Mogadishu using money that Beijing loaned to Somalia in exchange for the fishing rights.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, including high-ranking American military officials, have warned African countries that China is using predatory lending practices to undermine the borrowers’ sovereignty.