CORDIS - EU research results

Maritime Enclosures. Fishing communities facing the effects of the South China Sea dispute

Final Report Summary - MARENCLOSURES (Maritime Enclosures. Fishing communities facing the effects of the South China Sea dispute)

The aim of this fellowship was to develop local-level perspectives regarding the states struggles for resources, thereby providing an essential interdisciplinary complement to International Relations analyses of the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. The SCS is a hotly contested area, subjected to claims for sovereignty and marine enclosures by China, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states and involving the US and India. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in China and Vietnam, archival research and cartographic analysis, the proposed project shifted the gaze from the geopolitical conflict between the major states concerned to its effects on fisheries in the context of maritime enclosures. It sets out to map multiple social and economic inequalities arising from increasing global competition for natural resources, maritime enclosures through border demarcation and the responses of individuals and local communities. While its first objective was to explore how state governments seize upon the exclusive notion of sovereignty and adopt new technologies to demarcate national borders at sea, the second objective charted how local communities stake their claims to contested fishing territories—historically considered as common property—and how they deal with environmental damage of marine goods, and finally the third objective was to identify main actors, sites and patterns involved in the cross-border trade against the backdrop of the simultaneous liberalization of trade and the enforcement of sea borders between China and Vietnam. At the intersection between anthropology, history, political science, geography and marine ecology, the aim of this project was to offer an innovative, multidisciplinary perspective on the problem of marine enclosures, state territoriality and vernacular notions of space.

To attain all three objectives set out in the MAREnclosures, the Fellow identified locations in Vietnam (Ly Son Island) and China (Hainan Island) that are stepping stones to the Parcels and Spratlys. These strategic locations are severely effected by the South China Sea dispute and the increasing competition for natural resources and environmental change. In those locations states organize and recruit fishermen as part of maritime militias and designate areas for their fishing operations. The ethnographic fieldwork in Vietnam and China had ethical approvals of the Ethics Committee of Durham University. The Fellow was also successful to obtain research visas, arrange institutional affiliation and collaboration with local governments in China and Vietnam.

During her ethnographic fieldwork, the Fellow developed a highly-successful methodology that included the triangulation of the historical data (archives, research of internet forums, print cultures, assessment of cartographic representations of territory, collection of primary and secondary sources – village genealogies, customary village regulations, oral history and local unpublished materials) with material from micro-level fieldwork (unstructured conversational interviews, semi-structured interviews and participant observation). This methodology was supplemented by the study of preliminary findings of the ethnographic fieldwork and help to to develop a profound and novel analysis of how local coastal communities stake their claims to fishing grounds. These fishing grounds have been long governed by local knowledge and customary rules but now are the subject of maritime enclosures that impact the local livelihoods.

The findings of the MAREnclosures suggest that the sea is not only a zone of conflict and complexity but also of opportunity and ongoing integration through marine trade and new legal initiatives that emerged with the normalization of relations between China and Vietnam. The trade of marine commodities is particularly difficult to manage, control and trace due to the dispersed zones of harvesting, often highly localized species and the numerous points of exchange involving many participants – frequently of different ethnic backgrounds – over many regions. Although this trade in marine goods has not received much attention from the Vietnamese or Chinese governments, it constitutes an important source of income to fishermen, market vendors, wholesalers, and individual traders who are involved in cross-border trade. This trade of marine commodities is part of the larger economic circulation that has historically taken place along the sea border.

Building on these insights and on the ethnographic fieldwork in China and Southeast Asia Vietnam, the Fellow published several works that shifted the gaze from the geo-political conflict between the major states—Vietnam and China—to its effects on fisheries in the context of ecological degradation and enclosure of commons through border demarcation. While different states use customary fishing practices to formulate legal arguments for enclosure of these commons, the resulting enclosures paradoxically suppress the voices and interests of these fishing communities. The Fellow addressed this issue in depth by exploring how state governments seize upon the exclusive notion of sovereignty and adopt new technologies and new forms of knowledge to demarcate their national borders at sea and how local coastal communities stake their claims from below to contested fishing territories which were historically considered common property. The novelty of her findings—published in peer-reviewed journals Nations and Nationalism, Lud and as a peer-reviewed book chapter published by ANU Press—is that fishermen are not just portrayed as victims or passive agents of the South China Sea dispute but are shown to be drivers of the conflict as well.

The Fellow’s other revised submission to the top Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute includes findings that discuss different levels of contestations in fishing communities with reference to the religious landscape. These different confrontations create a theoretical problem because they refer to binaries that are experienced as real by people but are not mutually stable and exclusive. Therefore, this article constitutes potential contribution with new insights into binary oppositions that are not absolute, ever-lasting or antagonistic but that constantly change within and across the triadic relationships between state, villagers and more institutionalized versions of religion, such as Buddhism. The Fellow another submission to the Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review focuses on the historical, cultural and ethnic linkages that existed in the South China Sea and, thus, has a strong potential to contribute to the existing debates which take a critical view on nationalism and re-conceptualize dominant understanding of sovereignty and ethnic categories beyond the nation-frame.

The multidisplinary nature of the reserach groups at the School of Goevernment and International Affairs (SGIA) of Durham University in the fields of international politics, international political economy and conflict resolution and boundary-making provided an ideal environment to carry out the MAREnclosures project and nurture the Fellow’s further development. Dr Sutherland’s comparative reserach expertise on sovereignity, nationalism and nation-building in Asia and European context helped the Fellow to develop a fine-grained interdiscplinary analysis of the South China Sea dispute. In this way, the Fellow expaned her skills, develop new reserach ideas and capitalise on new reserach opportunities, offered by Durham University and other academic and non-academic institutions.

The Fellow’s expertise on East and Southeast Asia as well as on the South China Sea fisheries is accepted both in Asia and Europe, as evidenced by the invitations from the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society of the Australian Catholic University in Melborne (2016), the East Asia Network (2016), Tokyo University (2016) and the Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden (2014) to present her reserach results at the conferences and workshops. Earlier she received and accepted the invitations from the Australian National University and from the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture to attend the international conferences on maritime issues, and the invitation to give a lecture on ‘Maritime Silk Road’ at New South Wales Universityin Sydney (2015).