US, Argentina to Cooperate, Combat Illegal Chinese Fishing

Panama City — Starting next month, the U.S. Coast Guard and Argentine Navy will begin conducting joint exercises aimed at combating illegal Chinese fishing in the Atlantic Ocean.

Argentina, Chile and Peru have criticized Chinese-operated craft for large-scale invasive fishing in their territorial waters without regulation, which the South American countries say is depleting fish stock and damaging the natural biodiversity of the southwest Atlantic. It is a key nesting area for seabirds and feeding area for marine mammals.

The Coast Guard will send its destroyer, the USS James, to work with Argentine vessels to curb these fishing practices.

According to data from the NGO Global Fishing Watch, nearly 3,000 deepwater fishing boats operate under the Chinese flag globally, including about 400 in the southwest Atlantic, often targeting Argentine squid and Patagonian toothfish. The NGO says Chinese vessel activity in the southwest Atlantic increased from 61,727 hours per 500 square kilometers in 2013 to 384,046 hours in 2023.

Since 1986, Argentine authorities have seized 80 foreign-flagged boats fishing in their waters, including sinking Chinese and Taiwanese ships.  

The upcoming joint U.S.-Argentina cruise to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated or IUU fishing, mainly by Chinese fishing vessels, is part of a global and ongoing effort to strengthen maritime security partnerships. In 2020, the United States launched a new strategy to combat IUU fishing, and the Coast Guard is spearheading that effort. In South America, it has already stepped-up cooperation with Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.

Analysts say the Coast Guard’s cooperation with Argentina — together with recent visits from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns — reflect a shift by Argentine President Javier Milei’s new government, elected in November, away from China and toward the United States.

“The producing provinces of Patagonia have warned about the serious situation of illegal fishing and President Milei has a very clear position in relation to China,” Gabriela Ippolito O’Donnell, a political science professor at the National University of San Martín in Argentina, told VOA Mandarin.

“President Milei is undoubtedly in tune with the USA, even more so if Donald Trump wins the elections. He has already shown signs of a 180-degree turn in foreign policy in all its aspects, including the military.”

O’Donnell said the decision to push back on Chinese illegal fishing practices was more than a symbolic move.

“There is an epochal change in Argentina’s foreign relations,” O’Donnell said. “Of course, the Argentine military and the political opposition will have a voice in this process of military rapprochement with the U.S. But the initiative today belongs to President Milei.” 

In January, Milei authorized the U.S. military to enter Argentine territory — a stark contrast from three years ago, when U.S. patrols in the South Atlantic led to conflict with Argentina’s then-President Alberto Fernandez.

According to Michael Paarlberg, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, the decision is a deliberate way for Milei to break from his rivals, his direct predecessor Fernandez and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who reached several military cooperation agreements with China.

“We are seeing a growing closer relationship between the U.S. and Argentina under the new Milei government, closer than it was under the more U.S.-skeptical Fernandez government,” Paarlberg told VOA Mandarin. “Military cooperation with the U.S. is a way for Milei to fulfill his promise to undo all of the policies of his predecessors.”

Analysts, however, say Milei’s actions do not represent a complete break between China and Argentina, but rather an interest in diversifying Argentina’s international relationships, with fishing in Argentina’s territorial waters providing the country with a bargaining chip. China remains Argentina’s largest trading partner.

“It is too soon to talk about a major overhaul of Argentina’s foreign policy under Javier Milei, particularly regarding its ties with the United States and China,” Fabricio Fonseca, an assistant professor of diplomacy at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, told VOA Mandarin. “There are other geoeconomic trends and events that we need to take into consideration before forecasting a permanent change in Buenos Aires’s relations with Beijing.”

Evie Steele contributed to this story.


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