China is militarizing civilian fishing vessels to secure its sovereignty in the South China Sea and beyond.
The Maritime Militia, China’s Third Sea Force, is a paramilitary force masquerading as a civilian fishing fleet and engaging in “gray zone aggression.”
Commissar of the Hainan Armed Forces Department Xing Jincheng said Thursday the members of the Maritime Militia should serve as “mobile sovereignty markers.” He stated that this force is responsible for conducting “militia sovereignty operations” and defending China’s “ancestral seas,” territorial waters “belonging to China since ancient times.”
“I feel that the calm seas are not peaceful for us,” he said. “We have to strengthen our combat readiness.”
The less-noticed Maritime Militia “is improving its operational capability,” the China Daily revealed in February.
The Third Sea Force has become much stronger “as a result of the country’s efforts to strengthen its maritime capabilities and safeguard its interests at sea.”
China has organized “realistic sea operation exercises for local militiamen to strengthen their combat capability,” enabling “the maritime militia to play a bigger role in drills organized by the [People’s Liberation Army] Navy,” the report explained.
While China describes it as a militant force operating alongside the Chinese navy, “most of the maritime militia is made up of local fishermen,” the China Daily noted.
“The Chinese authorities consider fishermen and fishing vessels important tools in expanding China’s presence and the country’s claims in disputed waters,” Zhang Hongzhou, research fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told the Washington Post in April.
As of 2013, China had around 21 million fishermen, more than any other country. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reported in 2012 that China had around 439,000 motorized fishing vessels, valuable tools for the creation of a militia.
The Maritime Militia has existed since the 1970s.
A 1978 report estimated that China’s Maritime Militia consisted of 750,000 personnel and 140,000 vessels. The current size of the Third Sea Force is unknown, but given the prominence of maritime sovereignty in China’s national defense plans, the Maritime Militia has likely grown to a much larger size.
“Make no mistake, these are state-organized, -developed, and -controlled forces operating under a direct military chain of command,” Dr. Andrew Erickson, a leading expert on China’s Maritime Militia, said during a congressional hearing in September.
“China is generating a worrying new wave … in leading maritime militia development. The maritime militia was established to be a professional paramilitary force first and foremost, with fishing a secondary mission at best,” he added.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard receive the most attention for their actions at sea, but the Third Sea Force has been very active in reshaping international norms in volatile regions, such as the South China Sea.
The Third Sea Force “now essentially functions as Beijing’s first line of surveillance, support and pressure in promoting the country’s claims and interests in East and South China seas,” Erickson and Connor M. Kennedy said in a Wall Street Journal commentary.
China dispatched its Maritime Militia to harass the oceanographic vessel USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea on March 8, 2009.
Five Chinese vessels — a Navy intelligence ship, a state fisheries-patrol vessel, a government oceanographic patrol vessel, and two fishing trawlers — surrounded the Impeccable in international waters about 75 miles off the coast of Hainan. The fishing ships came within 25 feet of the U.S. ship and even stopped in front of it, forcing the Impeccable to take emergency action to avoid a collision and an international incident.
The Third Sea Force has also made its presence known in waters outside of the South China Sea. In August, 230 Chinese fishing vessels accompanied by six Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, territories administered by Japan but claimed by China.
The militarization of China’s civilian fishing fleet and the threat that this issue poses to the U.S. and its partners and allies in Asia have gone almost completely unaddressed by the current administration.
“The fact is that it is there. Let’s acknowledge that it’s there. Let’s acknowledge how it’s being command-and-controlled,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift told reporters in November.
“This is a force that thrives within the shadows of plausible deniability,” Erickson argued in September. “China’s maritime militia can only be as deceptive and plausibly deniable as we allow it to be through our own silence and our own inaction.”
“We have to make it clear that we are wise to Beijing’s game,” he added.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his New Year’s address that China will be much more resolute in defending its maritime sovereignty and national interests at sea in 2017. “Chinese people will not agree to whoever that wants to make trouble on this,” the president explained.
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