Relations between the EU and some ASEAN member states have been tense in recent years because of the seafood trade, stemming from the European Commission’s (EC) sanctions related to the illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. As Chair of ASEAN 2020, Vietnam hopes to promote cooperation among ASEAN member states and address this issue to actively contribute towards better ASEAN-EU trade relations.
For Southeast Asian countries, the EU is an important market which imports seafood with high profits – but the potential always comes with barriers that sometimes raise tensions between the parties involved. Although the market share of seafood imports from Southeast Asian countries is low, the region is subject to many sanctions from the EC. The EC has repeatedly sanctioned seafood imports from Southeast Asian countries related to IUU fishing, including a warning “yellow card” and a “red card”; to end imported seafood.
In the context of a global economic recession, ASEAN-EU trade relations are facing difficulties. Trade tensions between the EU, Indonesia and Malaysia – as well as “yellow card” sanctions for Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines and a “red card” for Cambodia related to IUU fishing – has resulted in a grey cloud over ASEAN-EU trade relations.
ASEAN countries’ efforts to combat IUU fishing are sometimes not fully evaluated. A number of research institutions put forward a report that emphasises too much on the status quo, which sometimes reduces the interest of the EC and countries in making positive progress in practice.
Clearly, the solution groups are gradually becoming more effective, while there is a question of objectivity in the measures employed. Before the efforts to remove the yellow card for Vietnam can take place, the question will be verified after the inspection team from the General Department of Marine and Fisheries Affairs – which returned from Vietnam last November – issue a conclusion.
ASEAN cares about the IUU issue not only because of potential economic losses but also because it is at times affecting the political relations among member states. Typically, the controversy over the exploitation of Myanmar fishermen labour on Thai fishing vessels; or tensions related to Vietnam’s fishing vessels seized by Indonesian authorities in the overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
Recognising the negative impact of IUU fishing on the environment and economy, ASEAN promotes efforts to combat this problem. In general, in order to solve the IUU fishing problem, ASEAN countries aim to take measures to conserve and manage fish resources, unify the legal provisions on fisheries and environmental protection among stakeholders. Transparency in national maritime policies, regional cooperation and contributions of regional fisheries management organisations.
As a country subject to yellow card sanctions from the EC, Vietnam particularly prioritises the removal of IUU fishing yellow cards. In May 2019, a special national committee was established and a deputy prime minister was given the right to direct and coordinate it. Vietnam also established the Fund for Protection and Development of Aquatic Resources and implemented many other strong long-term measures. The government has consistently and vigorously fought against IUU fishing through communication, laws, and technical measures, following recommendations from the EC delegation.
Vietnam also provides support to other ASEAN member states’ initiatives related to IUU fishing. In April 2019, Thailand hosted the ASEAN meeting with the EU in an effort to combat IUU fishing. At the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, Thailand launched an initiative to promote the role of the armed forces and agencies in the issue of IUU fishing with the support of many countries including Vietnam and the Philippines.
IUU fishing cannot be solved unilaterally. Vietnam as ASEAN Chair for 2020 and Standing Commissioner of the United Nations Security Council (2020 - 2021), is expected to use its influence to address this issue. A significant joint effort in the process of restricting and eliminating IUU fishing is expected to be part of the agenda at the ASEAN Summit and subsequent ministerial level meetings among the 10-member countries.
Vietnam has always promoted a multilateral effort to combat IUU fishing and it is expected that ASEAN as a bloc will ramp up efforts to fight IUU fishing this year.
ASEAN countries are now being fined for fishing outside the region. This is because a large number of Chinese fishing vessels are exploiting depleted fisheries in the South China Sea. This has forced fishermen from ASEAN countries to venture outside their designated fishing areas.
Malaysia and Vietnam cooperation
In that context, the cooperation between Malaysia and Vietnam also plays a very important role. In August 2019, during a visit to Hanoi, Malaysia’s Prime Minister at the time, Mahathir Mohamad and Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc witnessed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Vietnam Coast Guard and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) represented by Malaysia’s Foreign Minister at the time, Saifuddin Abdullah and Vietnam’s Chief of the General Staff cum Deputy National Defence Minister, Sen Lt Gen Phan Van Giang.
“We should also put in place suitable mechanism to enable our fishermen to engage in legal, safe and sustainable fishing, as well as find solutions together to ensure Vietnamese workers have stable livelihood and jobs with decent income,” said Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam’s Prime Minister.
On 16 February, speaking to reporters at the Balok Fisherman Integration Program in the state of Pahang, former Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said Malaysia intends to sign an agreement with Vietnam to tackle the issue of deep-sea fishermen. According to Saifuddin, Malaysia and Indonesia signed a similar agreement and another one could be signed with Vietnam as a follow-up.
ASEAN and the EU are two dynamic markets with effective cooperation and mutual benefits. The tough sanctions on key ASEAN exports such as seafood, could create unnecessary tensions.
In order to limit these tensions and prevent them from becoming a growing problem between the EU and ASEAN, responsible leaders need to seek a common voice to address the problem early.