These fishing boats, most of which do not actually fish, constitute a maritime militia that overturns the rules of the sea. By providing backup to the Chinese coast guard and maintaining a constant presence in remote waters – often parking on disputed reefs for weeks at a time – they reinforce China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
China’s maritime militia is made up of civilians who, on paper, have jobs as commercial fishermen. The blurring of lines is deliberate: China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has emphasized the need for civil-military unity to promote national security.
Such gray zone tactics help China quietly gain command of disputed territories. Beijing has used this method across its vast border, from the mountainous borders of South Asia to the cliffs of the East China Sea. And once China gradually takes over, a new reality prevails.
That reality is literally inscribed. In May, Chinese coast guard and militia vessels operating in and near Vietnamese waters sailed routes that appeared to trace the first Chinese character in the word “China.” And that word has also been carved on the hills near China’s land borders.
China has already built military bases on several Spratly reefs. In the air over the South China Sea, Chinese fighter jets are confronting US military aircraft with greater frequency. At sea, Chinese vessels have so far avoided a deadly confrontation. But an incident in a remote part of the South China Sea could well trigger an international crisis.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea has sharply increased tensions with the United States. While the US claims no territory in the waterway, it is treaty-bound to defend the Philippines, the nation most at odds with China. And should there be a conflict over Taiwan, the presence of Chinese military bases and vessels nearby in the South China Sea could hamper the ability of the United States and its allies to maneuver.
“With the Chinese in this part of the South China Sea, it’s like fighting water,” said Gregory B. Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS. they just back.”
A scare campaign
Off the coast of the Philippines, a small outpost of Philippine marines has borne the brunt of China’s militarization of the South China Sea. Every few weeks, Philippine vessels try to supply the Marines stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. And every other week the Chinese intervene to assert what they call their “indisputable sovereignty” over the reef.
On October 22, this intimidation was reinforced when a large Chinese coast guard ship rammed a smaller Philippine supply boat, forcing it to abandon its mission.
This was not the first dangerous encounter this year. In August, a Chinese coast guard ship aimed a water cannon at a Philippine supply vessel. In February, the Philippine Coast Guard reported that sailors were temporarily blinded by a “military-grade laser” aimed by its Chinese counterpart.
Civilians are also caught in the crosshairs. In 2019, a Philippine fishing boat was hit by a Chinese militia trawler, leaving the fishermen floating in the wreckage for hours before a passing vessel rescued them. From Vietnam and Indonesia to the Philippines, fishermen say they can no longer access traditional fishing grounds because of what is effectively a Chinese blockade.
Over the years, Chinese aggression has forced Southeast Asian nations to suspend oil exploration in the South China Sea, although some efforts have restarted.
A constant, aggressive presence
To project Beijing’s power, militia trawlers have anchored for weeks near China’s island military bases and on reefs that are in other nations’ waters. Rafted side by side, sometimes by the dozens, the boats often lack nets or crews large enough to fish.
In terms of numbers and reach, China’s maritime militia has no challenger in the South China Sea. In fact, the fleet is far larger than what is needed to fish these waters, according to an analysis by CSIS
On any given day, satellites identify hundreds of Chinese militia boats in the South China Sea and in nearby ports.
Funding from the Chinese government keeps the militia afloat.
Dozens of Chinese militia boats are built by state-owned enterprises. These vessels are designed for confrontation with steel hulls, long silhouettes and an array of weapons. Smaller wooden fishing boats are overwhelmed.
Other militia boats are recruited from the commercial fishing fleet. But because the most generous Chinese government subsidies go to the largest vessels, even these commercial trawlers are larger than most of the Philippine Coast Guard’s fleet.
A brave coast guard
If the purpose of the maritime militia is to penetrate disputed waters, the Chinese coast guard is also redefining its role and moving dangerously close to a military posture.
China’s coast guard, radiating from the military bases China constructed by pouring sand onto underwater Spratly reefs such as Mischief and Subi, roams the South China Sea. Chinese ships have fired water cannons at Philippine and Vietnamese boats. They have tangled with the Indonesian Coast Guard.
And over the course of a week in May, Chinese coast guard ships, along with maritime militia boats, tumbled through waters off the coast of Vietnam on exactly the same curious route. The paths the vessels took created the character 中, which is the first character in the Chinese word for “China”. The character was spread over a stretch of 350 miles, equivalent to the distance from New York City to Canada.
The Chinese coast guard is now the world’s largest, and its reach and presence in the South China Sea has increased dramatically in recent years. The Chinese coast guard is filled with retired naval corvettes and newer vessels that are longer than most US Navy destroyers and boast ships that outnumber those of other nations.
With an emboldened Chinese coast guard flanked by a powerful maritime militia, fears are growing of a showdown in the South China Sea.
“Each reef has a fraction of a percent of a chance,” said Mr. Poling, “to become the next international flashpoint.”