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China’s Civilian Fishing Fleets Are Still Weapons of Territorial Control

Photograph from Xinhua News showing a Chinese maritime militia ship in 2016.

In response to the ongoing presence of over 200 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest with China earlier this week, demanding that China recall the vessels. Experts, the Philippine government, and the US Department of State have all suggested that this fleet is likely composed of ships from China’s maritime militia, an increasingly professionalized force of ostensible fishermen who answer to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command. Despite mounting evidence, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying claimed that these vessels are just “fishing boats” that are “taking shelter from the wind.” Likewise, China’s embassy in Manila denied the presence of any maritime militia ships. But even if the vessels in question were civilian fishermen, that would not preclude them from asserting control over Whitsun Reef or other disputed areas of the South China Sea at the behest of the Chinese state.

Thanks to China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system, which has embedded two-way short message service (SMS) capabilities, nearly every civilian fishing vessel operating in the South China Sea can perform maritime surveillance functions. According to a 2013 report from state-run broadcaster China National Radio, “generally, every fishing boat is a militia organization, while they are carrying out production, they must also attend to the mission of situation reporting, when a fishing boat discovers an illegal fishing boat entering into our territorial waters, fishermen can use the BeiDou system to report to the ship monitoring center.” China National Radio claims that, after receiving information from fishermen, the PLA then coordinates with maritime law enforcement forces to deal with the offending foreign vessel. A 2012 assessment from Hainan province confirms that actors in the Chinese party-state system have viewed the combination of BeiDou equipment and ordinary fishermen as an effective means of detecting and handling foreign fishing vessels.

This maritime surveillance role for ordinary fishermen was made possible by over a decade of investments in BeiDou-related communications infrastructure in the South China Sea. In 2007, the PRC Ministry of Agriculture—which had managed China Fisheries Law Enforcement before the agency was merged into the China Coast Guard—completed a BeiDou-based fisheries monitoring system in the Spratly Islands, which included building 11 ground stations and equipping over 600 fishing vessels with satellite equipment. Moreover, in 2010 Hainan province launched an initiative outfit fishing vessels with BeiDou. It aimed to equip over 6,000 fishing vessels with Beidou by the end of 2012; by the end of 2016, over 10,000 vessels had reportedly received the equipment. After recent investments in navigation infrastructure, China appears to have achieved 100 percent BeiDou coverage in the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and other claimed areas.

Authorities in China may even be working to expand the role of civilian fishermen in the South China Sea. A 2018 proposal submitted to the Hainan’s branch of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), for example, advocates using subsidies, tax benefits, law enforcement protection, militia status, and other benefits to incentivize private enterprises to operate fishing boats on the front lines of the disputes. The proposal describes these boats as the “first line” of “rights defense” in the South China Sea, referring to the “maritime rights and interests” that constitute China’s claims over the disputed waters. According to the proposal, central and provincial authorities have already worked to improve the capabilities of fishermen operating in the South China Sea, helping fishermen in Hainan replace their aging boats with large, newly made steel vessels. By 2018 there were reportedly over 600 such vessels in Hainan, nearly double the number from 2012.

Satellite image from Google Earth showing aquaculture at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in May 2019.

In addition to traditional fishing, officials responsible for implementing China’s territorial agenda in the South China Sea have openly discussed using aquaculture to assert China’s claims. For example, in a submission to the Hainan People’s Congress in 2018, a delegation from Sansha City advocated for developing aquaculture in the Spratly Islands, arguing that “using normalized and sustainable civilian activity is currently the most effective means of declaring sovereignty and defending sovereignty.” The delegation suggested subsidizing the development of aquaculture, arguing that it would encourage fishermen to remain in the Spratly Islands for longer periods, facilitate further infrastructure development in the area, and ultimately provide strategic support for asserting “actual jurisdiction” over the South China Sea.

The businesspeople leading the charge on aquaculture in the South China Sea also appear to view it as a means of defending China’s claims. Meng Xiangjun, who runs a company engaged in aquaculture at Mischief Reef, stated in an interview in 2014 that “political interests and national sovereignty” are core considerations driving the development of aquaculture in the Spratly Islands. After admitting that aquaculture in the Spratlys is not profitable and relies on government subsidies, Meng said, “since it is national territory, first it must have production in the civilian space, once it has civilian rights, then it can have maritime rights, and then it can have national sovereignty.” Meng continued, “in developing the South China Sea, the civilian space comes first… this is the reason why a project with high costs and low income still continues to exist.” A social media post detailing the operations of Meng’s company suggests that it works closely with central government ministries, local Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organs, the PLA, and fishing cooperatives.

As such, even if the vessels at Whitsun Reef do belong to civilian fishermen rather than to China’s professionalized maritime militia forces, the Philippine government still has plenty to protest.

Zachary Haver’s research focuses on the South China Sea disputes and Chinese economic statecraft. He has worked on Chinese security and economic issues at SOS International LLC, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, and the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program. Zachary received his BA in International Affairs from George Washington University. He lived in China for three years, studied Chinese in both Taiwan and China, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.


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