Chinese fishing boats set off to fish near the disputed Diaoyu Islands, also known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, from Shipu fishing port in Xiangshan county, eastern China's Zhejiang province, on September 16, 2012. Photo: AFP / Stringer

Since at least 2014, Russia and China have seen their interests conflating against the United States and its allies. It is no surprise that both Russia and China (and their adversaries) see this “alliance” as flexible, pragmatic and based on mutual benefit, but not at the expense of either party’s distinct national interests – especially economic. 

With the recent joint military exercises, hysterical discourse around a supposed joint Russia-China front across domains is emerging, yet despite this, not all is well between the Dragon and the Bear. 

An undeclared quasi trade war on fisheries is ongoing between Russia and China. As early as October 2020, Russian media reported Chinese authorities were restricting fisheries imports from the Russian Far East.

With the Covid-19 pandemic raging, the cited reason was “traces of the coronavirus on the seafood’s outer packaging.” This may have had some overlap with Chinese authorities’ desire to deflect the blame over the origins of the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan, China. 

Almost 60% of Russian seafood exports have been to the Chinese market alone, in previous years. The restrictions are still in force, and the response of the Chinese authorities has been less than engaging. The Russian Far East’s fisheries economy is set to bear losses in the range of 27% decline in revenue.

For a measure of how drastic the situation has been, in March, Alexei Chekunkov, the Russian minister for the development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, went so far as to say that Far Eastern fishermen can safely delete the year 2021 from their calendar.

The most affected regions in Russia are Sakhalin Oblast and Kamchatka Krai, which export much of their fish to China. In response to the crisis, the Russian fishing industry refuses to adopt a defeatist approach. Its efforts have been multifaceted – finding new alternatives to the Chinese market, seeking economic state intervention from the Russian government, and pushing for mitigating measures at relevant joint forums with China. 

The Russian government for its part has commendably chosen the self-reliance route, with a push for proliferation of domestic fish processing and refrigeration facilities. The move will reduce and ultimately eliminate dependence on Chinese facilities for processing and handling large volumes of their catch before it can be sold to consumers in other markets around the world.

There are also efforts to provide subsidies for “preferential rail transport” to the fisheries industry and their products, which should cushion at least some of the economic brunt of the crisis. 

Most recently, there are even stories in the Russian press stating that Beijing may start pressuring Moscow to let it fish for free in Russian exclusive economic zones (EEZs). These media reports are in turn based on an assessment report published by a British non-governmental organization called Planet Tracker. 

The Planet Tracker report designates as a “long term-midstream risk” China’s desire to leverage Russia’s dependence on its fish-processing facilities. The report states that it may be China’s attempt to coerce free access to fisheries in Russia’s EEZ.

The rationale behind this coercion by China according to Planet Tracker is the lure of higher profit margins in catching the fish than merely processing it. Furthermore, Planet Tracker substantiates this claim by pointing toward the Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) squid fishing by China in some South American countries’ EEZs instead of legally importing from them.

This coercion by China could be the perfect opportunity for Japan to exploit a wedge between Russia and China. Although plagued with its own problems and frictions with Russian authorities, the Japanese fishing industry has consistently been ready to pay for fishing rights in Russia’s EEZ. That puts Japan in a better position than the Chinese, who have not negotiated a similar agreement for 2021.

If nothing else, as long as the undeclared quasi fisheries trade war and coercion remain in effect, Russia is unlikely to support China on its territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.