Argentina must rethink its handling of Chinese interests in pork and fishing

Before Argentina presses ahead with a billion-dollar pork project, president Alberto Fernández should learn lessons from Chinese fishing in its waters

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A fishing vessel in the Argentine sea (image Greenpeace Argentina)

Two billion-dollar industries in Argentina – one existing, the other imminent – stand at crossroads.

The controversial development of a new pork project with Chinese investment has grabbed headlines recently. But before this is approved, President Alberto Fernández should set down and marker and generate much-needed revenues by formalising the fishing that many Chinese vessels undertake in Argentina’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), often illegally, without paying taxes, or adhering to controls.

The agreement Argentina hopes to close in the pork sector anticipates investments of almost US$3.8 billion over the next four years. It aims to produce up to 900,000 tonnes and to generate exports worth US$2.5 billion.

Of almost equivalent value – both in volume and export revenues – is the estimated stock of fish Chinese flagged fleets extract from the Argentine Sea, some 950,000 tonnes per year worth around US$2.47 billion, which if properly collected could render the pork project unnecessary.

Operating without control and regulation allows China, with tariff-free incomes and superlative catches, to dump products in international markets that Argentina itself might sell to, with prices further distorted by low labour and artificially low operating costs, largely due to subsidies.

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Foreign vessels operate in the South Atlantic

Of the 500 foreign vessels operating in the South Atlantic, those flying the Chinese flag represent 45% of the total. They focus primarily on species such as hake, squid and giant squid.

At a historic moment in its relationship with China, which this year became Argentina’s number one trade partner, Fernández has the opportunity to intervene on this issue. His likely visit to Beijing to participate in the China International Import Expo could provide the right moment.

In order to illuminate the commercial, environmental, productive and sovereignty black hole that is Chinese fishing in Argentine waters, it is necessary to, which could involve vessels from China requiring special permission to fish in the EEZ. This might transform it into a credible joint project that develops gradually and eyes China as the eventual market.

Only a mutual Chinese-Argentine project that ensures the sensible use of resources in the Argentinean sea can guarantee China a long-term supply, preserving an ecosystem so that it can provide yields and recover. If China eventually aspires to build a food safety net, these are steps it must consider.

At present, Chinese vessels often fail to meet any kind of internationally recognised labour standards and many crew work under inhumane conditions. Phytosanitary parameters are also lacking. It is precisely a consequence of this lack of standards at the domestic level that China is now seeking to diversify its pork producers – the last outbreak of African swine fever led China to slaughter of millions of animals and seek new overseas suppliers.

China's ambassador to Argentina, Zou Xiaoli, recently highlighted his country's zero tolerance policy on illegal fishing and underlined a pledge to. China also assisted Argentina in the capture of vessel caught fishing illegally in May this year.

However, despite such promises, in the South-East and South-West Atlantic alone China’s catches have increased 800% in the past five years. This is enabled by investing more in fishing subsidies than any other country, 90% of which goes to paying for fuel for its vessels.

Progress on this issue will only come from concerted efforts by both countries to keep it on the bilateral agenda

The continued existence of such policies reflects the fact that China actually appears to have little interest in coordinating fishing policies and investments. Progress on this issue will only come from concerted efforts by both countries to keep it on the bilateral agenda.

The violation of Argentina's sovereignty that fishing represents, something China would doubtless not permit in its own territory, is also sufficient reason for Fernández to give it extra weight. And without significant action, concepts such as Chinese president Xi Jinping’s "Community of a shared future for mankind ", achieved through the Belt and Road Initiative Argentina is considering signing, is little more than a buzzword.