For years, scores and sometimes hundreds of Chinese fishing ships have been harassing, swarming and spying on Filipino crews upgrading infrastructure on the island of Thitu, known as Pagasa in the Philippines. This is the second largest naturally occurring island in the Spratly archipelago, and is home to about 100 Filipinos and a small military detachment.
The Thitu confrontation is part of a much larger, long-running dispute between Beijing and Manila over ownership of islands and islets in the Spratly group and other South China Sea features such as the Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef.
Beijing’s irregular forces
The beauty of these militia units from Beijing’s point of view is the ambiguity of their status. Other coast guards, navies or fishery protection units find it impossible to know conclusively whether they are facing regular Chinese fishing vessels and crews, or Beijing’s irregular forces who have a clear military purpose in mind.
By comparison, it was much easier to identify the heavily-armed contingents of “Little Green Men” without national or regimental insignia that Russian President Vladimir Putin used in 2014 to seize the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Because of the difficulty in identifying Xi’s fishermen-soldiers the security forces of other South China Sea littoral states involved, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, usually act with restraint. They try to avoid using force that might cause injuries or deaths, and thus international accusations of human rights abuses.
Beijing and its Maritime Militia have used this restraint by their opponents to their own advantage for 40 years and more. The militia has been key to Beijing’s strategy over territorial disputes in all of China’s surrounding seas and to evading serious confrontations when extending the territory under its control.
In 1974, the militia was at the forefront of the sea battle in which Beijing’s forces captured the last island held by Vietnam in the Paracel archipelago in the northern reaches of the South China Sea.
Chinese militia ships built for ramming, spying
Since then, Sansha in the Paracel Islands has been developed as a base for the most militarised, professional and well-paid units in the Maritime Militia. According to Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the Sansha fishermen are also equipped with close to 100 purpose-built trawlers with reinforced hulls for ramming and sophisticated communications suites for spying.
The Sansha fishing fleet is used as a fast response unit to confront any activity Beijing considers an affront to its territorial claims.
In March 2009 the USS Impeccable, a US spy ship, was about 100 km south of China’s Hainan Island. It was trying to monitor traffic in and out of the submarine base at Sanya on the southern tip of the island.
Chinese warships and coast guard cutters approached the Impeccable and sent warnings for it to leave the area. When it did not, the ship was swarmed by Maritime Militia trawlers, which not only blocked its passage, but used grapple hooks to snag the Impeccable’s towed sonar array used to track submarines.
The Impeccable might have seen the Chinese warships or Coast Guard cutters as threatening enough to fire on them. The innocent-looking militia trawlers were able to get the job done without a shot being fired.
In May and June 2011 the militia trawlers were again in action, this time against research ships operating within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and looking for evidence of submarine oil and gas reserves. Maritime Militia ships cut the towed survey cables of both the Binh Minh and the Viking 2.
These incidents prompted most major oil companies to cancel exploration agreements with Vietnam.
Three years later, in May 2014, the shoe was on the other foot. When Beijing sent the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil platform to disputed waters southwest of the Paracel Islands and within the exclusive economic zone off Vietnam’s east coast, Hanoi deployed its own maritime militia trawlers to try to disrupt the operation.
Beijing responded with its own militia trawlers, and there was a low-intensity sea battle with both sides ramming the other’s ships and using high-powered water hoses against the crews. At least six crew members were injured and one Vietnamese vessel was sunk after being rammed.
Thus the militia has been at the forefront of Beijing’s campaign over the last 30 years to seize control over the South China Sea.