China-Sri Lanka ‘fishy’ dealing a challenge to the EU

Soon after the European Union Parliament (EUP) adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka recently, citing that it has flouted all the conditions it committed to the EU and the UNHRC, such as, to ratify and effectively implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour conditions, protection of the environment and good governance and warned of revoking the GPS Plus facility that generated  €2083mn in 2020, China immediately exploited the situation and announced they would buy Sri Lanka’s fish from July 1, 2021.

Sri Lanka’s fish export to China stood at USD 6.53mn in 2020 and the overall exports to China in 2019 was US$252mn which is approximately the same in 2020, based on the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade.  

China tends to give no room for Sri Lanka to think on its own of prosperity but attempts to grab every moment to tighten its grip using the vulnerable situation Sri Lanka is, in fulfilling its ambitious Belt and Road initiative to become the superpower rising from the East.  

China’s sudden interest in purchasing Sri Lankan fish is a clear indication that they challenge the West and barge in wherever the West warns countries of human rights issues.  China knows human rights  is key to the West including the US, that they see has been violated in South Asia and South-East Asian countries where China is strengthening its hold.

China keeps reiterating that no country should meddle with the internal matters of Sri Lanka when they have cushioned and protected by the leaders and government authorities of Sri Lanka. China was also behind drafting the Port City bill that has given them the power to control the reclaimed land for 99 years leasing and also to engage in ‘rebuilding’ the nation.

Against this backdrop, it should be said that the EU has sharply increased its imports of tuna caught by Chinese and Southeast Asian fleets.

Despite several human rights violation committed by China on its ship crew, from 5 per cent of total tuna consumption in the bloc in 2012 to 53 per cent in 2019, amounting to 79,500 MT of tuna, the EU has purchased from China.

The Sri Lankan government has been adopting many of the Chinese strategies in governing the country. But what the EU has been offering in terms of supporting Sri Lanka’s financial stability has been immeasurable.

 The EU is Sri Lanka’s second-largest trading partner after China and its second main export destination, absorbing 22.4% of Sri Lankan exports in 2020 and last year Sri Lanka was the EU’s 69th largest trading partner in goods accounting for 0.1% of EU trade. Also, Sri Lanka’s exports to the EU are dominated by textiles and clothing, accounting for 52.3% of Sri Lanka’s total exports to the EU in 2020. EU27 imports from Sri Lanka have been constantly increasing since 2016 reaching €2 083 million in 2020.

Sri Lanka’s fish exports to the EU countries have recorded a 45.9% increase in 2017 since the lifting of the EU fish exports ban. Fish exports to the EU countries from January to September 2017 amounted to 18,262/mt which recorded a value of Rs. 28,685mn. In 2020 it was Rs. 31.22bn compared to Rs. 40.31 billion in 2019. The Rs. 10bn drop was due to the pandemic the statistics show.

China is also one of the top fish exporters to the EU, however there have been disputes over the poor methods of fishing by China that many EU countries have highlighted to the EU Parliament. China is known for encouraging illegal poaching as it runs a mega wildlife trade.

The Spain based Organization of Associated Producers of Large Freezer Tuna Vessels (OPAGAC), which has nine operators of 47 tuna purse-seiners fishing in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, has called upon the European Union to revise its criteria for allowing seafood imports from China may this year.

In an official statement, OPAGAC Managing Director Julio Morón said, based on the EU’s accession Convention 188 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that is now in force, requires it to enact regulations on China to ensure European consumers do not consume fish from boats with slaves on board or from those that do not respect the minimum social conditions or salaries set by the ILO which is not currently being done they said.

Europe cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these facts and import fish from these fleets, including those that are exempt from tariffs, for domestic consumption by EU citizens. Morón pointed to the deaths of four Indonesian crewmembers working onboard the Long Xing 629, a Chinese tuna long liner as justification for an investigation into EU procedures. According to them, the crew was to work 18-hour days, was subject to physical violence, and was forced to partake in illegal fishing. Also, the four members who died suffered swelling, chest pains, and breathing difficulties for weeks and were denied medical care.

The Indonesian government has opened a criminal investigation into Dalian Ocean Fishing, the holding company for the firm that operates the Long Xing 629 and 31 other tuna boats. The OPAGAC believes that the time has come for Europe to open a debate and reflect in-depth on the criteria the EU has currently established for fish product imports from Chinese fleets, due to the latest information made public by different NGOs and various Asian media outlets, on the degrading treatment of their crews, including burials at sea of sailors who, allegedly, fall victim to COVID-19. They highlighted a situation where the sailors in the Chinese fleet, often abandon their crew to their fate on board the vessels.

In this background, Sri Lanka is proud that China is ready to buy fish from Sri Lanka. Remarkably, Sri Lanka has collaborated with China and opened a China-Sri Lanka Association For Trade & Economic Cooperation (CSLATE ) on June 15, 2021, with the leadership of Sri Lankan Ambassador to China Dr. Palitha Kohona who has his own business h China.

The objective behind the Association they say, is to enhance the trade and investment cooperation between the two countries and ease the barriers faced by the Sri Lankan exporters that would tighten their mutual bonds between the brotherhood nations.

At the Sri Lankan Embassy premises in Beijing China, two MoUs were signed between CSLATE, China Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Association and the China Association of International Engineering Consultants International Business Advisory Council.  Sri Lankan Embassy in Beijing said their Commercial Section has been working closely with the GACC to assist Sri Lankan fish exports to access the booming Chinese market.

‘When one door shuts another door opens’ is an adage and Sri Lanka may be perhaps preparing to shift its attention to other regions for trade opportunities which is good and fair enough. 

But Sri Lanka has been constantly avoiding in addressing its own human rights allegations, nor adopting the UNHRC resolution. Even India has stressed the importance of the 13A to the constitution which would be in line with Tamil aspirations for equality, justice, peace & reconciliation and strengthen Sri Lanka.

China has been accused of illegal poaching and ill-treatment of its sailors which are serious crimes. On the other hand, Sri Lanka has been closely monitored by the EU that has already accused Sri Lanka of violating the law of fishing methods and called to improve it. Sri Lanka is improving but it’s falling back on the assurances it made to the international community. 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been always challenging and in murky waters, hence, it’s under the geopolitical microscope. The situation has aggravated due to the high dependence on China that has significantly impacted the ties between India-Sri Lanka. Now, it’s on the verge to antagonize the EU and the USA – which have advanced its strategy through the recently held G7 Summit, to isolate China and cripple its military power.