‘Paid agents’: New report lifts lid on Chinese maritime militia

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Singapore: The majority of Chinese fishing vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea are operating as paid agents to help Beijing press its territorial claims with grey-zone tactics.
In a new report on China’s maritime militia, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has detailed the superpower’s program of providing subsidies and bonuses to have fishing boats conduct activities on its behalf. The CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative tracks ongoing activity in the South China Sea.
A satellite image shows Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef, near six Manila-claimed islands in the disputed South China Sea, in March. Credit:Maxar Technologies via AP
The report comes amid the latest flare-up in the maritime corridor over Chinese coast guard boats blocking, and firing water cannons at, two Philippines military supply vessels in the contested Spratly Islands on Tuesday.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin jnr on Thursday expressed “outrage, condemnation and protest” over the incident at Ayungin Shoal, an area claimed by Manila, saying it “threatens the special relationship between the Philippines and China”.
Beijing has long denied the deployment of a maritime militia to assert control in the strategic waterway along with its coast guard, but the US think tank said it had identified 174 vessels it concluded were likely to be militia.
Their activities included harassing fishermen and the oil and gas operations of rival claimants to territories in the South China Sea – China claims 85 per cent of under it controversial nine-dash line.
Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands has been fully developed by China although President Xi Jinping told then US president Barack Obama in 2015 that Beijing would not build military fortifications on several artificial islands in the South China Sea.Credit:Maxar/AP
Citing official Chinese government documents and state media as well as on-site reporting and satellite imagery, the centre estimated there were about 300 maritime militia vessels operating every day in the Spratly archipelago, where Beijing has built military outposts on artificial islands in recent years.
It said they were professional militia and commercial fishing boats recruited with financial perks for operating in disputed areas.
They included a special fuel subsidy for fishing in the Spratlys, a one-time bonus for vessels in “specially designated waters” and further subsidies for the building and renovation of professional militia boats, for communications and navigation equipment and for the training of military veterans to serve on the vessels.
“Their operations are funded by the Chinese government through subsidies that incentivise local actors to construct vessels in accordance with military specifications and to operate them in disputed waters, ready to assist Chinese law enforcement and naval forces when necessary,” the report said.
It said it could “conclusively demonstrate that the majority of Chinese fishing vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea do not operate as independent commercial actors but instead as paid agents of the Chinese government obligated to help fulfil its political and national security objectives”.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have rival territorial claims inside China’s self-determined nine-dash line while Indonesia, while technically not a claimant, has also pushed back against Beijing over fishing rights in its exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands.
There are different diplomatic approaches to Chinese incursions taken by south-east Asian nations but both the Philippines and Malaysia have summoned China’s ambassadors to their countries this year.
In March and April Manila sounded repeated protests over the presence of more than 200 suspected maritime militia vessels within its territory at Whitsun Reef, not buying Beijing’s explanation that they were fishing boats taking cover from inclement weather.
The mooring of Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef in March triggered a row with the Philippines.Credit:AP
Malaysia called in the ambassador in Kuala Lumpur for a second time this year last month, reacting to ongoing harassment of its state-owned oil company Petronas as it establishes a gas field in its exclusive economic zone, 200 kilometres off the coast of Sarawak on Borneo.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in October he expected the visits by Chinese coast guard vessels to continue and even increase for as long as the project went on.
“I have lost count of the number of protest notes we have sent to China,” he said. “We will be steadfast and continue to respond diplomatically to them.”
Indonesia has also taken note of the presence of a Chinese survey vessel near one of its oil and gas fields between August and October but has not taken up the issue with Beijing.
“We respect freedom of navigation in Natuna Sea,” said Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, during a visit to the US last month.
The CSIS report said the ability of Chinese vessels to deploy from outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands had “radically changed the peacetime balance of forces in the South China Sea”.
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