Fishing trawler cooperatives are being used as seaborne militias to help the Chinese government further its ambitions in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Speaking at an international conference at Yale University, James Kraska, from the U.S. Naval War College, described the maritime militia as primarily being made up of Chinese fishing vessel cooperatives.
“They work in conjunction with the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, and other Chinese government departments in order to advance or further the interests of China,” Kraska said at the event, which was held in May this year.
These fishing trawlers do have an economic motive to fish, but they also have an auxiliary function for the military, said Kraska.
“Right now, we are witnessing maritime militia involved in a number of peacetime roles,” he said.
Kraska said that China’s maritime militia is the core of the so-called cabbage strategy, where a disputed maritime landmark is surrounded by many types of vessels.
He said they are further used in “gray zone dominance,” which is an informal, non-conventional way of being aggressive without going to war, a tactic that straddles the gray area between war and peace.
The maritime militia are also involved in “critical infrastructure protection, such as ports and oil rigs, and certainly rights protection missions or missions to vindicate or advance the claimed rights of China, primarily based on historic rights,” said Kraska, adding that they likewise harass foreign vessels (both warships and civilian vessels), conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
“There is also growing suspicion that the maritime militia may be involved in interference with submarine cables,” he said.
China’s maritime militia are also used to project power.
Kraska gave the example of how a flotilla of 29 trawlers from the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co. conducted an 18-day expedition to the contested Spratly islands in 2012.
“Upon their return, they went through recognition ceremonies, arrival ceremonies, citations for bravery on behalf of the state,” Kraska said.
During wartime, Kraska said that maritime militias can be used for a broad range of purposes that include intelligence and reconnaissance, concealment, harassment, blockades, mine sweeping, island defense, and patrols.
See this video from The Telegraph from featured footage screened on Vietnam television of a Chinese vessel sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on May 26, 2014:
The Chinese communists have used maritime militias since after World War ll, and they were instrumental during the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 against Vietnam.
The maritime militias get political support from Beijing; they also receive investment in infrastructure and fuel subsidies. The state also provides them with satellite communication, and they are given extensive paramilitary training, Kraska said. ‘They are eligible for pensions if they are injured in the line of duty for these auxiliaries or militia functions,” he said.
Largest fishing fleet in the world
The overall number of boats that Beijing could call upon is not known, but the potential is great given that China is believed to have over 200,000 fishing vessels.
In an interview with Defense News, Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, said that the maritime militia is not a faceless organization and should be called out.
Now he says it is time that U.S. officials talk out publicly about Beijing’s use of the sea-borne militia.
“China’s maritime militia is only as deniable for China as we allow it to be, and we don’t have to allow it to be deniable,”
“I believe we already have enough data to make very conclusive durable connections using sources that, within China’s own system, are authoritative and legitimate,
“The only thing missing is for some U.S. government official and report to state this officially” he said.
See this Yale University video of Kraska’s presentation on Beijing’s maritime militia: