The Coast Guard of Argentina sunk a Chinese fishing ship trespassing into Argentine waters on Tuesday, after the trawler responded to calls to return to international waters by trying to ram into a Coast Guard vessel, according to the South American government.
The incident is similar to numerous attacks on Vietnamese ships fishing in international waters that China has attempted to claim as its own in the past two years.
In an official statement accompanied by video of the incident, Argentina’s Coast Guard notes that it found the Chinese ship fishing in exclusively Argentine waters. “Multiple calls through radiofrequency (in Spanish and English) were first attempted, as well as audio and visual signals to make contact with [the ship],” the statement reads, adding that the ship first appeared to turn around and begin sailing towards international waters without responding to the Coast Guard.
The statement continues:
On different occasions, the offending vessel executed maneuvers aimed at colliding with the Coast Guard, putting at risk not only the lives of their own crew, but personnel of this institution. Due to this, orders were given to fire at various parts of the vessel, causing damage.
Accompanying video clearly shows the ship interacting with Coast Guard vessels and offers latitude and longitude coordinates as proof of the ship’s transgression.
The ship’s crew were all rescued following its sinking, with four members, including the captain, in Argentine captivity. Argentine authorities have said they will interrogate the three crew members and release them as soon as possible, but the captain will remain in detention.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, has lodged a formal complaint through its embassy in Buenos Aires. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang issued a statement expressing “grave concern” about the incident and urging Argentina to thoroughly investigate the matter to “avoid another similar incident.” The Chinese government is alleging that Argentine Coast Guard authorities “chased [the ship] for various hours … and later received shots that caused it to sink,” without mentioning any incidents of the Chinese ship attempting to attack Argentine authorities. Argentine newspaper Clarín claims that some sources within the Argentine government suspect that “the Chinese themselves sunk the ship, taking advantage of the shots fired by the Argentines.”
Argentine newspaper La Nación notes that similar incidents of transgressions into Argentine waters occur with some frequency: “between 1990 and 2013, the Argentine Navy has captured 19 ships illegally present in Argentine waters: seven from Taiwan, four from China, three from [South] Korea, two from Spain, two from Japan, and two from Poland.”
While the incident has not been confirmed to have occurred in Argentine waters, it is certain that the vessel was not fishing in its native waters, as Vietnamese ships have done before being sunk by Chinese intruders. On multiple occasions in the past decade, Vietnamese boats have been attacked in the South China Sea in similar incidents. In 2011, for example, China allegedly attacked Vietnamese research ships in Vietnamese waters. In 2014, the Chinese sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in contested South China Sea territory internationally recognized as Vietnamese. Last year, a similar incident sunk a small Vietnamese fishing vessel for attempting to use resources in national waters.
Whether Argentina can currently afford such an attack on a Chinese vessel remains to be seen. During the eight years of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency, China gained control of a significant chunk of the Argentine economy. As of 2015, China accounted for over six percent of the nation’s exports – the second largest market working with Argentina. This statistic is double what it was in 2000, during the brief tenure of President Fernando de la Rúa.
Attempting to hedge an economic collapse triggered in part by the Kirchnerist push left, Argentina signed deals with Chinese companies for a variety of large-scale industrial projects, from railroads to nuclear power plants. China agreed to these deals and went as far as to disregard the racist jokes Kirchner made at the Chinese people’s expense during a 2015 trip to Beijing. More than twenty of these were signed shortly before the October presidential election, which gave current President Mauricio Macri, a free-market conservative, a mandate to undo much of Kirchner’s work during her tenure.
Macri’s senior energy policy adviser, Emilio Apud, suggested before his candidate’s victory that many of these deals would be challenged by a Macri administration. “A government that managed the energy sector poorly has set the rules of the game for the incoming government, which compromises it for three or four presidential terms,” he told the press, arguing that Macri, as president, would “have a right to rethink these deals … in a careful and transparent way.”
Reports suggest the Macri administration is doing just that, seeking new avenues of investment to liberate Argentina from Chinese control without canceling infrastructure contracts that could undermine the nation’s development. While this may have been an optional economic move in the past, this maritime conflict may put bilateral relations in jeopardy and prompt more urgency to undo the dependence on Chinese investment Kirchner cultivated during her term.