Sino-Vietnamese Fishery Agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin

7    Sino-Vietnamese Fishery Agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin

On 25 December 2000, China and Vietnam officially signed the Agreement on Fishery Cooperation in the Gulf of Tonkin together with the Agreement on Maritime Boundary Delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin.1 This is the latest fishery agreement in East Asia towards sustainable management of fishery resources in the sea areas within national jurisdiction.2 This chapter will review and assess this bilateral agreement.


As described in Chapter 5, the Gulf of Tonkin is a shared water area between China and Vietnam. Marine living resources are abundant in the Gulf of Tonkin due to some favorable natural factors, such as nutrient-rich discharges from numerous river systems, and year-round warm water temperature. The gulf is rich in organic substances and inorganic salt, and waters along the coasts are highly productive, containing abundant plankton and other organisms totaling up to 1,150 types. It therefore provides ideal conditions for fish to spawn, breed, feed, and mature.3 It is reported that there are 928 species of fish in the gulf and among them more than 20 are of commercial value.4 The main species include snapper, grouper, catfish, croaker, shrimp, and lobster.5 The fishing grounds in the Gulf of Tonkin are traditional fishing areas for both the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Indeed, the Beibu Fishing Ground is one of the four largest fishing grounds in China.6 On the other hand, due to the geographical conditions, the distribution of the fishery resources is not even between the two countries. The majority of the resources are located in the waters adjacent to the Vietnamese side. Recently, scientific data showed that fishery resources in the Beibu Gulf had been overexploited.7

Since the fishery resources in the Gulf of Tonkin are shared by China and Vietnam, bilateral cooperation in this regard is inevitable. The first fishery agreement between China and Vietnam was signed in 1957. The Agreement stipulated that the near offshore fishing grounds should be reserved for the respective adjacent coastal countries respectively, while the fishing grounds in the middle of the gulf were open to fishermen from both countries. In 1960, the 1957 Agreement was extended and a supplementary protocol to the Agreement was signed in 1961. These Agreements expired on 31 July 1963. In August 1963, the two countries signed a new fishery agreement which determined respective offshore lines and although special arrangements were made for a certain number of small fishing boats, the basic principle was that the fishing vessels from one side were not allowed to enter the area inside the limits of the other side. The 1963 Agreement expired in July 1969. In addition, China and Vietnam also signed an agreement on the preservation of fishery resources in the Red River in 1962.8 Due to the deterioration of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship in the 1970s, however, there was no new fishery agreement between the two sides until the end of 2000.

Both China and Vietnam are signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS Convention).9 Based on the relevant provisions of the LOS Convention, the two countries established their respective EEZs by enacting new laws and regulations. The relevant Chinese legislation on EEZ and marine fisheries is already mentioned in the preceding chapter.

Vietnam issued its Statement on the Territorial Sea, the Contiguous Zone, the EEZ, and the Continental Shelf on 12 May 1977.10 It declared the establishment of its EEZ much earlier than the Chinese pronouncement. Under Decree No. 30 on Regulations for Foreign Ships Operating of 29 January 1980, all catching, exploiting, or trading of any products without permission is prohibited in Vietnam’s maritime zones. When navigating in Vietnam’s EEZ, foreign fishing vessels must remove all their nets and other fishing instruments and store them in the ships’ holds and must render inoperative all their equipment for fish exploration, detection, and guidance.11 In May 1989 the Council of State promulgated a “regulation on the preservation and development of marine resources”, with the object of bringing about rational management and uniform control over those resources.12 On 9 June 1999, Vietnam promulgated the Decree on Sanctioning Administrative Violations in the Territorial Waters and Adjacent Areas, Exclusive Economic Zones and the Continental Shelf,13 which stipulates that the Vietnam Coast Guard has the competence to action against violations in the fields of security, order and safety, environmental protection, protection of aquatic resources and mineral resources, illegal transportation and smuggling. The Decree applies to foreigners and foreign vessels alike which have violated the relevant Vietnamese laws and regulations on fishery management together with the Decree No. 49/CP of 13 July 1998 on the Administration of Fishing Activities Conducted by Foreigners with Foreign Instrument in the Vietnamese Sea Areas. Foreign lawbreakers are subject to fines up to VND 100M, confiscation of the fishing gear as well as criminal liability in serious cases. It can be seen that the provisions of the Chinese and Vietnamese laws and regulations on fishery management are very similar and very strict in relation to foreign fishing activities within the waters under their respective jurisdiction.

In terms of fishery management in the Beibu Gulf, common efforts have been exerted from both sides. As early as 1963, China and Vietnam jointly conducted a survey on fishery resources in the gulf. However, the efforts made by the two sides are not even. For example, China established closed seasons and closed areas for fishing activities in the Beibu Gulf, but it seems that no corresponding efforts had ever been made by the Vietnamese side. For this reason, there have been complaints by some Chinese fishery specialists. The Chinese conservation measures include the establishment of fishery resources conservation areas and the implementation of restricted fishing systems, including periods of closed seasons. Such measures have been taken by three Chinese coastal provinces adjacent to the Beibu Gulf, but they only apply to waters under China’s jurisdiction and to Chinese fishermen.14 Due to the continuing decline of fishery resources in the gulf, joint efforts of fishery management from the two sides are most important and urgent. The new fishery agreement can therefore be seen as a significant reflection of the joint efforts made by both sides towards sustainable management of the fishery resources in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The new fishery agreement

Fishing operations in the Gulf of Tonkin are important for economic development of the coastal regions adjacent to the gulf of both China and Vietnam, particularly the Chinese side. The Chinese have used the fishery resources in the gulf more heavily than the Vietnamese. Before the 1950s, Chinese fishing boats could fish within the 6nm limit along the Vietnamese coast, and could land for food and fresh water supplies. However, in the 1960s after the conclusion of the first Sino-Vietnamese Fishery Agreement, Chinese fishing activities were restricted. With the further tightened measures taken by the Vietnamese side, the Chinese fishermen were only permitted to conduct fishing operations on the Chinese side of a line drawn across the middle of the gulf. In the 1980s, due to the deterioration of bilateral relations between the two countries, there were a large number of incidents involving the detention and arrest of Chinese fishing vessels. In order to avoid further loss of property and life, the Chinese advised its fishermen not to fish in the waters on the Vietnamese side of the middle line of the gulf. Nevertheless, the fishery issue was still there and needed a solution.

The new negotiation on the delimitation of the Gulf of Tonkin commenced in 1993 when the countries normalized their relations. The fishery issue was first put forward by the Chinese side, who wanted to include cooperation on fishery management with the issue of maritime boundary delimitation of the gulf. China insisted on a “package deal” including fishery arrangements, such as recognition of the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen. The Vietnamese emphasized the importance of resolving the issue of the EEZ demarcation line, and conservation and utilization of the fisheries should be considered later only after the resolution of the boundary delimitation. For that reason, Vietnam refused China’s request at the first stage of the negotiations. It was not until 1998 that Vietnam agreed to discuss the fishery issue in the context of the negotiation of the Beibu boundary delimitation, thus paving the way to reach the agreement between the two sides.

The new Fishery Agreement was signed in 2000, reflecting the efforts made by both sides. It contains 22 articles and one annex. The purpose of the Agreement, as it stands, is to maintain and develop the traditional friendly relationship between the two neighboring countries, and to preserve and to utilize marine living resources in a sustainable manner in the Beibu Gulf. The Agreement applies to parts of the EEZs and parts of the adjacent territorial seas of the two countries (hereinafter referred to as “Agreed Water Area”) in the Beibu Gulf. The two parties have agreed to undertake fishery cooperation in the Agreed Water Area based on mutual respect for sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction. However, the cooperation does not affect the sovereignty of the two countries over their respective territorial seas and other rights and interests enjoyed by them in their respective EEZs (Art. 2).