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Public Documents Suggest ‘Fishing’ Vessels Actually Serve Beijing’s South China Sea Militia: RFA

Published: May 25, 2021
chinese sailors
(Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Recently unearthed bidding documents, corporate records and other official data strongly suggest that many Chinese “fishing vessels” in fact contribute to, or are part of China’s maritime militia, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.  

RFA analyzed troves of publically accessible documents and discovered that a “state-owned fishing company in charge of Sansha city’s maritime militia fleet has managed projects involving classified national security information” stating that it is “a strong indicator that the company’s ships are engaged in more than just fishing.”

Sansha, located in a disputed portion of the South China Sea and administered as a city of Hainan Province, established its maritime militia in 2013. It was trained and commanded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). By 2016, the militia had grown to include over 1,800 militiamen and more than 100 vessels and was regarded as playing an “irreplaceable role” in defending China’s maritime claims, as reported by the Sansha government. 

It is now widely suspected that what appear to be ordinary fishing vessels are in fact part of the Sansha city maritime militia. 

‘State secrets’ of a ‘fishing community’

In 2015, Sansha Garrison Commander, Cai Xihong, published an article in a PLA-run magazine, “National Defense” which stated that the city created a company named “Sansha City Fisheries Development Co, Ltd”, a supposed fishing company, to manage the militia’s fleet of steel-hulled ships. Corporate records obtained by RFA confirm that this company was incorporated in February of 2015. 

Radio Free Asia discovered that Sansha Fisheries Development regularly invites companies to bid on contracts that involve “classified information systems integration” and also require bidders to hold “state secrets protection” credentials. 

In one documented case a company, Xi’an Jiangong Construction Tendering Co., Ltd. managed bids for a “fishing boat hull underwater cleaning project” however bidders on the tender were told that the project involved “national security and secrets” and specified that any third-party supplier to the job required a “state secrets protection” qualification. 

In another example, the ‘fishing company’ requested tenders to supply “SX command system[s]” and stated that “the third-party supplier needed to have a ‘classified information systems integration first-class credential’ or a ‘national third-level or higher secrets protection qualification.’”

Classified information systems integration first-class credentials are required to develop, construct and operate classified information systems while a national third-level or higher secrets protection qualification is required to work on weapons and equipment research at the lowest classification level, according to Chinese regulations. 

The company that won the “SX command systems” tender was Space Star Technology CO. Ltd. also called “CASC 5th Academy 503rd Research Institute.” The research institute is a subsidiary of a state-owned defense contractor, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). 

RFA notes in their report that supposedly civilian vessels are “being equipped with high-end surveillance and communications technology” supplied by U.S. defense contractors Wavestream and Comtech EF Data.

Their report also uncovered “clear evidence” that there is an “overlap between the fishermen living on islands and reefs occupied by China and the maritime militia personnel charged with guarding those features.”

They discovered that 13 members of Sansha city’s maritime militia including “10 militiamen of unspecific rank, one militia squad leader, one militia platoon sergeant and one militia company commander”, on paper, appeared to run “aquatic product and fishing businesses.”

According to the RFA report, “these militiamen are likely fishermen who received military training.”

Growing South China Sea tensions

Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea regularly rattle neighbouring nations, even going as far as to violate a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

In a recent example, in March of this year, Manila filed several diplomatic protests against Beijing after they discovered a fleet of approximately 220 Chinese ships had moored at Whitsun Reef located within their 200-nautical-mile EEZ. 

The Chinese embassy in the Philippines claimed that the ships were moored there to shelter from rough seas however upwards of 44 Chinese ships remained in the area long after rough seas had passed. 

Beijing’s intrusion attracted international condemnation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated in a tweet, “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.”

China’s militarily trained fishing vessels have been dubbed the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM) by the U.S. Department of Defense and they assert that the militia plays a key role in Beijing’s strategy to exert its influence in the South China Sea and beyond.