Nearly 40 years ago, scientists sounded the alarm that emissions of industrial chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were eating a hole in the earth’s ozone layer, exposing the planet to harmful levels of radiation from space. The international community responded quickly to enact a ban on CFCs called the Montreal Protocol. It went into effect in 1989 and was universally ratified by 197 countries, including every member of the United Nations, as well as the European Union. It curbed emissions and was declared a major success.
However, in 2013, the trend turned around—slowly at first, but then faster. In June 2019, an international team of scientists published findings in Nature showing evidence that CFC-11 is being emitted by polluters in the Shandong and Hebei provinces in Northeastern China. When confronted by the EIA last year, 18 different Chinese companies made no effort to hide their use of CFCs, and the Chinese government appears to be willing to turn a blind eye to this illegal activity. Without domestic enforcement of the regulations in China, the accomplishments of the Montreal Protocol are in jeopardy.
Recently, the Washington Post reported that Chinese telecom giant Huawei teamed with the Chinese state-owned firm Panda Group to obscure its trade and dealings with North Korea, in violation of U.N. sanctions and U.S. export control measures. These incidents follow the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisting Huawei for partnering with Panda to bypass sanctions and export controls to conduct business in Iran. These violations serve as further evidence of China’s willingness to disregard international norms and conventions when it is convenient or expedient.
China’s failure to enforce treaties and sanctions and lack of corporate accountability should serve as a warning for the international community when it comes to Chinese participation in international agreements and instruments. Of recent interest is their 2018 signature of the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The signatory parties committed to curbing high seas commercial fishing in the Arctic until the ecosystem is better understood, no sooner than 2034. Beijing’s participation in the negotiations, and signing of the fisheries moratorium, helps bolster its long-term narrative of China’s identity as a “near-Arctic state” with a legitimate right to involve itself in decisions about the future of the region.
However, based on past actions, there is no reason to believe the Chinese government will enforce this agreement. When it is convenient, and when there are economic incentives to cheat, China has a history of turning a blind eye to the illegal activity of its industries, or tacitly supporting them. Given the scale and reach of the Chinese off-shore fishing fleet, and its ever-increasing demand for sea-based protein sources, it would be short-sighted to expect the government of China to enforce the fishing ban, especially in light of its record. The agreement also gives China a plausible justification to deploy China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels into the Arctic under the banner of “enforcement” of the fishing ban. Once there, they could be a powerful and permanent presence that would undermine the security and sovereignty of actual Arctic nations.
China already has demonstrated a dismal record when it comes to enforcing regulations on their fishing fleet. A report published in February 2019 cites China as world’s worst country (by far) in terms of Illegal, unreported, and underreported (IUU) fishing, and notes specific deficiencies in terms of flag-state and port-state controls over fishing vessels. The United States should not expect better controls or compliance when these vessels begin to test the unfished waters of the Arctic.
Militarily, China also has a record of employing its fishing fleet as a maritime militia, surging the vessels into the South China Sea and leveraging their presence as a means of asserting sovereignty in the disputed region. The fishing vessels have been active aggressors, harassing and firing water cannons at fishing vessels from Vietnam and the Philippines. The 2018 Department of Defense report to Congress regarding China’s military power notes the recent construction of a fleet of 84 state-owned “large militia fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage” as part of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The report notes “the PAFMM is the only government-sanctioned maritime militia in the world,” and that the vessel crews are “paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities, and recruited from recently separated veterans.” These vessels are a multilevel threat: mobilized as covert force projection, but also as a plausible justification for overt People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and CCG surface presence in any region where they are operating.
It is only a matter of time before these vessels begin operating in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, perhaps under the guise of scientific research or future legal fishing. Much like in the South China Sea, these vessels represent the far-left end of a continuum of force that escalates into white-hulled CCG vessels and, eventually, gray-hulled PLAN warships. China’s intentions in this regard seem transparent. The question remains whether the U.S. or the other Arctic nations are willing or able to counter this threat.
Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard published an Arctic Strategic Outlook that prioritized strengthening the rules-based order in the Arctic. By taking a leadership role in the Arctic, the United States can hold cheaters accountable and remind those who would ignore such rules that these commitments and agreements aren’t just for show, or applicable only when convenient. The Arctic Council and Arctic Coast Guard Forum are excellent venues for Arctic nations to align global interests, and employ consensus to achieve mutually beneficial ends. However, for the U.S. Coast Guard and the other Arctic coast guards to counter threats, enforce the fishing moratorium, and protect Arctic resources, they need the right tools: ice-capable vessels, advanced data acquisition and sharing capabilities, and more personnel to keep watch over the world’s smallest and most vulnerable ocean.