China and Indonesia are unofficially, but very visibly, at war with each other over illegal fishing. China has been stealing fish (poaching) from offshore areas where the fishing rights belong to other countries. This poaching has been going on with increasing frequency since the 1990s. But now many of the victims have done the math and noted that the most frequent offenders are Chinese ships. These are either Chinese owned fishing ships or ships from other countries that register themselves as Chinese to gain a measure of immunity from being stopped or punished by the nations being plundered. But some nations are not just complaining, they are fighting back.
In the case of Indonesia the fighting back consists of shooting at poachers and, since 2014, destroying (via explosives or burning) over 170 ships used by guilty poachers. Indonesia calculates that this poaching costs Indonesia over $2 billion a year and that China’s worldwide poaching operation brings in over $20 billion a year. Since China does not officially admit it is organizing and controlling this, and the Indonesians are using large warships with orders to fire on any poacher caught and refusing to surrender, the Chinese are taking most of the losses off Indonesia. For a while China sent warships to accompany flotillas (often ten or more ocean going fishing ships) and protect the poachers if caught and keep the police or coast guard boats busy while the poachers escaped. But Indonesia responded by sending out warships (corvettes and frigates) with orders to fire on any foreign warships caught with the poachers. China stopped sending warships but the poachers kept on coming and Indonesia keeps capturing and prosecuting the crews. The poacher ships are often destroyed as media events, with local news being allowed to capture and broadcast videos of the fires and explosions.
The most frequent site for poaching off Indonesia is near the Natuna Islands. These are 3,000 kilometers from China and within the Indonesian EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the EEZ of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. In the past China has escorted Chinese fishing boats that were illegally fishing near the Natunas and several times used the threat of force to prevent the arrest of the Chinese fishing boats. In response to this Indonesia began sending larger warships to make arrests.
Since 2015 it has become public knowledge that Chinese commercial ships, particularly freighters and ocean-going fishing ships, are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. The commercial ships are expected to collect intelligence and even risk damage and injuries by using their ships to block the movement of foreign ships (including warships). In return the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance if Chinese commercial ships get in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should when stealing fish is involved. And it’s not just Indonesia. On March 15th 2016 an Argentinian coast guard ship sank a Chinese trawler that was illegally fishing in Argentinian waters. The coast guard rescued five of the crew, including the captain and arrested them. China complained but did nothing else. In fact, within weeks China publicly reaffirmed its growing economic and diplomatic ties with Argentina. Meanwhile the owners of the lost fishing trawler will be quietly compensated.
This sort of illegal fishing is a worldwide problem and Chinese trawlers are apparently the biggest offenders because these crimes are government organized and coordinated. In waters closer to China there will often be Chinese warships near areas where Chinese trawlers fish illegally. This sometimes becomes a problem as Chinese warships will often try to rescue Chinese trawlers seized for illegal fishing. This doesn’t always work but it sets a scary precedent.
This has happened several times in Indonesian waters, even in areas where China does not dispute ownership. China justifies their armed intervention because the Chinese trawlers were in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” In the case of Argentina the Chinese did nothing because most South American nations have an illegal fishing problems and would unite in opposition to Chinese bullying. Any Chinese economic threats could backfire because Chinese firms are currently investing a lot money in South America and don’t want those investment threatened because of widespread local anger over Chinese poachers.
The trawlers involved in these incidents are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities on board to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30. The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 (when there were 13) and there are currently over 2,400 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean going fishing boats. Those subsidies have since been withdrawn but meanwhile the number of larger (than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters. The trawler sunk off Argentina was 66 meters long but was in the company of similar Chinese vessels, which picked up most (23) of the crew from the sunk trawler and fled the area.