My article “Avoiding and Exploiting the Tragedy of the Commons: Fishing, Crime, and Conflict in the South China Sea” has been published in International Politics.
What factors have driven the dramatic depletion of fishery resources in the South China Sea, and how have states responded? This article demonstrates that a complex mix of political, economic, and security drivers has led to the fishing crisis in the South China Sea in the fashion of a classic “tragedy of the commons.” Although states have attempted to solve this problem by cooperating through bilateral, regional, and international arrangements, the article argues that states have also sought to exploit the situation as part of “hybrid” or “gray zone” strategies that blur the lines between private and public actors and between law enforcement and military activities.
Specifically, the article identifies four mechanisms through which the conditions associated with the tragedy of the commons enable states to put fishers and fishing regulation on the frontlines of defending their territorial claims in the South China Sea. First, the structure of incentives surrounding fish stocks as a common-pool resource results in overfishing and overcapacity, which means that there is an abundance of fishers in relation to the number of fish that are available to be caught and the amount of time that can productively be spent fishing. Second, this excess of idle fishers presents states with an opportunity to hire these individuals as part-time militia, or, alternatively, to disguise militia members as fishers. Third, the existence of illicit activity related to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing creates a need for states to enforce their fishing regulations and protect their fishers, which creates opportunities for states to assert that disputed maritime territory falls under their jurisdiction by apprehending foreign fishing boats. Fourth, the need for effective laws and regulations to combat IUU fishing and to sustainably manage fishery resources grants states an opportunity to strategically enact domestic legislation covering contested waters, resulting in additional occasions for law enforcement activities directed toward IUU fishing that may further establish control and legitimate claims. In short, amid the problems and disorder created by the tragedy of the commons, states can craft strategies that maintain ambiguity about their intentions as well as about the identities and motivations of the non-state actors involved, enabling them to bolster their sovereignty claims by establishing de facto control over contested waters.
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