US blacklists Chinese fishing fleet accused of working Indonesian fishermen to death

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A state-owned Chinese fishing company accused of working Indonesian employees to death has been banned from exporting tuna to the United States, an order highlighting an issue with often-overlooked human rights and geopolitical implications.

“Today’s action helps stop human rights abusers from profiting from forced labor,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday, after U.S. Customs and Border Protection imposed the import ban on Dalian Ocean Fishing Company. “It is also another example of the United States taking measures to address harmful fishing practices.”

China’s use of forced labor has turned into a geopolitical liability in recent months, as the atrocities inflicted upon the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang galvanized European opposition to an investment pact with Beijing. The blacklisting of Dalian Ocean combines that “modern slavery” problem with China’s aggressive deployment of fishing fleets around the world — an abusive practice that could drive smaller nations that depend on sustainable fishing to partner with the U.S. to defend sovereignty rights and good environmental stewardship.

“To the extent that those things put us on the side of those island states, that certainly is helpful for the United States being seen as a partner of choice,” said White House National Security Council chief of staff Alex Gray, who also ran the Oceania and Indo-Pacific Security desk under former President Donald Trump. “This is how we can be successful in the Pacific.”

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The fishing fleets have garnered less attention in diplomatic circles than China’s claim to sovereignty over vast swaths of the South China Sea, but they play an important role even in those disputes.

“China is known for sending paramilitary ships and its coast guard to back its fishing fleets as they assert resource rights in disputed waters, or even within other countries’ exclusive economic zones,” BenarNews, an outlet affiliated with the U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia, observed when China ended an annual summer ban on fishing.

Dalian was at the center of a controversy involving China and Indonesia last year following revelations that several Indonesian men died while working on a Dalian-owned fishing vessel. Indonesian officials repatriated dozens of fishermen from Dalian’s fleet, and survivors reported that they had been abused.

“The crew members claimed that drinking the salty water made their colleagues sick leading to death,” a South Korean humanitarian group reported. “They were physically assaulted by some of the Chinese crew. Moreover, the crew stayed onboard for 13 months, never disembarking at a port. Multiple trans-shipments at sea allowed the continued operation of the ship for a prolonged period.”

Blinken’s team invoked those allegations on Friday while noting that Dalian isn’t the only Chinese fishing company to warrant punishment, to judge from the State Department 2020 report on human rights.

“The report noted other PRC firms that abuse migrant workers subjected to forced labor,” Price said. “The United States will promote accountability for those who use forced labor to exploit individuals for profit, and we will work with our international partners to ensure that the voiceless are heard and protected.”

“The report noted other PRC firms that abuse migrant workers subjected to forced labor,” Price said. “The United States will promote accountability for those who use forced labor to exploit individuals for profit, and we will work with our international partners to ensure that the voiceless are heard and protected.”

That effort could be a boon for small states and U.S. diplomats, who are prosecuting a competition with China that often plays out in the United Nations and other multilateral arenas where national votes carry equal weight.

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“This is [about] economic survival for small island states that get the vast majority of their revenues from fishing,” Gray said. “The Chinese are alienating states that really have no interest in being involved in competition because of their outrageous territorial claims … [and their forced labor] helps us make common cause with cultures that they’ve mistreated consistently.”

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