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Op-Ed: China is Fighting the Third Opium War - With Fish

Chinese trawler
U.S. Navy file image

Published Oct 30, 2023 3:55 PM by CIMSEC

[By Dr. Ian Ralby]

In the 19th Century, the British East India Company was buying up huge amounts of Chinese goods – tea, silk, porcelain and more – but China was not interested in buying anything from Britain. As a way of balancing the accounts, Britain began smuggling opium from India into China, and demanding payment for it in silver. Not only did this help balance the trade accounts and create an insatiable drug dependency, it helped fund British naval and military buildups. Disaffected by the arrangement, the Chinese sought to push back, leading to the two Opium Wars. Thanks in part to the silver from the Opium trade, the technological superiority of European military might at that time resulted in China being easily defeated in both wars, and forced to accept woefully unfavorable trade terms as part of the peace. This led to the “Century of Humiliation” for China. Even after the Cultural Revolution, President Xi Jinping has been fond of historical narratives surrounding Chinese greatness, as well as Chinese grievances. Indeed, “historical fishing grounds” have been the basis for China’s legally unfounded nine (or ten) dash line claim over territory in the South China Sea. There can be no doubt that President Xi and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party remember the Century of Humiliation and the tactics that characterized it.

New reporting from The Outlaw Ocean Project in The New Yorker indicates that China has adapted the British tactics of the Opium Wars to use fish as trade-based leverage to undermine the United States and its allies. While the context is quite different – the concept is similar. Setting aside the major role China plays in the opioid crisis that has taken the lives of more Americans than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam combined, China is reaping huge economic benefits by selling fish to the United States in a manner that is directly funding its military and diplomatic buildups to be able to out compete the United States. Indeed, the Outlaw Ocean team has even traced Chinese-caught and processed fish to U.S. military bases, not to mention school cafeterias. And the revelations that people – often from third countries – have likely died in the process of catching this fish, and others, namely Uyghur minorities who have been enslaved to process this fish, add to the pernicious dynamics of this operation. Just as the British once resorted to criminality and degradation of human beings to fund their military, the Chinese have followed suit.

One of the lighthearted, albeit relevant, parts of the Outlaw Ocean’s reporting was the revelation that squid was unpopular in the United States until it was renamed “calamari” to make it sound more appealing. Now calamari appears on menus across the country and the remarkable demand for it – particularly breaded and fried – has driven China to become the world’s largest supplier of it. Yet how many conversations about the horrors of slavery have occurred while consuming fried calamari produced by slave labor?

It is clear that the Outlaw Ocean Project based some of their work on the detailed efforts of academics and practitioners to look into the implications of subsidies. China’s use of subsidies has propelled its Distant Water Fleet (DWF) to fish around the globe and in the process, disrupt both ecosystems and economies. Indeed, this issue has been years in the making, and diligent research from scholars like Dr. Tabitha Mallory has shown just how problematic this dynamic is in terms of both ocean sustainability and broader economic and social impacts. But it goes even further.

As has been expressed, the DWF is being used for much more than just catching fish. It is an information and intelligence collection source, a tool for hybrid aggression, and part of a strategy to “own the oceans by adverse possession.” In many ways, it is the main action arm of China’s efforts to build what amounts to an oceanic empire over the 70 percent of the earth that is covered in water. But this new reporting by the Outlaw Ocean Project reveals how the United States public is financing China’s aggression toward the United States. Not only are American children eating fish fingers made by Uyghur slaves, but public institutions in America are channeling their resources toward products that are financing China’s hostility. This is the dynamic of the Opium Wars that China has replicated. China’s production and targeted sale of fentanyl and other opioids may look and seem like the principal analogy to the Opium Wars, but the fish and all the major benefits the DWF provides to China’s efforts for military superiority are actually the main parallel.

Armed with this reporting, the U.S. should muster a whole-of-society response to this Chinese effort. If the U.S. is serious about “Great Power Competition,” it at least needs to stop scoring “own goals” by funding and emboldening the main competitor. But from the standpoints of both defense and security, these issues cannot be overlooked or marginalized. China is using its DWF globally in a manner that accrues tremendous benefits to the Chinese armed forces. The least that can be done is stop buying fish caught by the DWF and processed by enslaved Uyghurs and serving it on U.S. military bases. The U.S. should heed the famous line from Karl Marx – “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” It may also be worth returning to the history of the first two Opium Wars to see if there are any strategic lessons the U.S. can glean in countering Chinese efforts to win the third one.

Dr. Ian Ralby is CEO of I.R. Consilium, a family firm with leading expertise in maritime and resource security. A maritime lawyer by background, Dr. Ralby has worked in more than 90 countries around the world and is an advisor to various US government agencies and international organizations.

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.