China Deploys 'Civilian' Fishing Fleet to Attack Neighbors

Today, in the ongoing South China Sea territorial disputes, much analysis is focused on Chinese efforts to expand its blue-water navy capabilities. While the accumulation of submarines, warships, and subsurface torpedoes are certainly important for China’s strategy (and one that it’s pursuing vigorously), one facet of Beijing’s plan that is just as vital, yet hasn’t been as widely discussed, is its use of civilian maritime assets in the South China Sea.

In July 2013, China completely revamped its civilian maritime elements, consolidating all maritime assets, everything from fisheries law enforcement vessels to anti-smuggling ships, under the management of a single non-military body called the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) also fell under SOA control. While the PLA Navy has a significant and growing presence in the South China Sea, it is the CCG and SOA that do most of the dirty work reported in the headlines, while the PLA ships and aircraft act as protectors to the bullying CCG and SOA ships in case things go awry.

Holding onto space in peacetime is not accomplished through large-scale, dramatic battles. On the contrary, securing territory over time is done so through small displays of force that together relay a message: This is my space, not yours. James R. Holmes, professor at the US Naval War College and defense analyst for the Diplomat, calls China’s strategy in the South China Sea “small-stick diplomacy”: using non-military assets (“small sticks”) to pursue a militaristic agenda; the securing of maritime territory in China’s case. Hosing down foreign fishermen with high-powered water-cannons; ramming foreign fishing vessels; pestering foreign coast guard ships; these are all “small stick” events that, if left mostly unchallenged, will strengthen China’s dominance in the South China Sea in the long run. Using CCG or other SOA vessels to do these things, and not PLA gunboats, is less provocative and easier for America to overlook or shrug off. As geostrategist Robert Kaplan notes in his latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, “Beijing’s goal is not war—but an adjustment in the correlation of forces that enhances its geopolitical power and prestige.” America, the only Pacific power that would even think about confronting China militarily, would be hard-pressed to find political support for an intervention in the South China Sea in response to non-military Chinese aggression. Using the SOA and its various maritime instruments in place of PLA vessels then is a no-brainer for Beijing. Besides, why use expensive military assets when, as Holmes notes, Chinese law enforcement vessels already are, for the most part, overwhelmingly superior to those of southeast Asian nations?

Furthermore, considering that Beijing sees its dominance over the South China Sea as uncontroversial, its deployment of maritime assets rather than its military ones is altogether normal, if not expected. Consider: Americans have no doubt that the Florida Keys belong to America. So if a Cuban fishing ship appeared off of Key Largo, would Florida dispatch the Navy’s Fourth Fleet or the Coast Guard on Islamorada? By using forces normally reserved for domestic issues, the Chinese are sticking to their overall position on the South China Sea, that is, that the territory under question is and always has been China’s. How then has China been using these forces in its South China Sea aims? Here are but a few examples:

Earlier last month, China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) deployed a massive oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands (Xisha in Chinese). Let it be known: CNOOC, a state-owned enterprise, cannot be disaggregated from the geopolitical machinations of the Chinese Communist Party; it is a non-military asset, in other words. Its deployment should be seen as a geopolitical maneuver. Vietnam is livid, and asserts that the rig is well within its Exclusive Economic Zone as allocated by the UN Law of the Sea. Yet Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang insists that the rig was deployed in “undisputed Chinese coastal waters.” Furthermore, the rig was deployed with an 80-ship fleet of surveillance vessels, not from the PLA Navy, but from China Marine Surveillance, a maritime entity that falls under the command of the civilian SOA. In fact, CMS boasts many decommissioned PLA Navy warships; decommissioned merely means that they are stripped of their heavy weaponry.

Also in the headlines recently, the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat that was alleged to have been assaulted, not by a PLA vessel, but by one of the 40 Chinese fishing ships that had surrounded and pestered the Vietnamese fishermen. The boat was 17 nautical miles southwest of the controversial oil rig. Of course, CCG ships have been accused of ramming Vietnamese ships before, as well as firing water cannons at them, but this would be the first time that a Chinese fishing boat sunk a foreign vessel. In order to assert Beijing’s jurisdiction, Chinese fishing boats are often accompanied by vessels from China’s Bureau of Fisheries Administration, itself under the command of the SOA.

Other stratagems are more subtle. On May 28th for instance Beijing announced that the SOA would be managing a new network of monitoring groups that will regularly evaluate the “ecological status” and “development progress” of all of China’s islands. While no islands are specifically cited, contested territories or not, one can assume that Beijing intends to send monitoring teams to the disputed islands as well; they are a part of China’s “indisputable sovereignty” after all. Such a muted move furthers Beijing’s militaristic goal of securing its claimed territoriality by manufacturing a norm, which through repeated and multifaceted enforcement, becomes regularized and accepted by neighboring states, however begrudgingly. In this instance, the manufactured norm that China is trying to reinforce is this: that the disputed islands are in fact China’s, and like any other sovereign territory require regular monitoring. Moreover, by dispatching civilian ecological surveyors and developers to monitor the islands, Beijing can deny allegations of militaristic intent.  

While other states in the region are certainly a nuisance, America is by far China’s greatest bugbear in the South China Sea. Washington knows that to ensure the sovereignty of the region’s weaker states, most of which are US allies, China must be kept at bay. Call it what you will, but this is a form of containment. Yet, Beijing’s naval capabilities are nowhere near Washington’s: to America’s six aircraft carrier strike groups in the region, China has one. America has 12 guided-missile cruisers there; China has none. America has 29 guided-missile destroyers in the Pacific; China has eight advanced ones. Of course, Beijing is ambitiously expanding its naval capabilities. But for now, a naval strategy involving outright confrontation or even deterrence is not only unrealistic for Beijing—it’s laughable.

Beijing is laying claim to a massive expanse of space. China’s historical nine-dashed line, the “cow’s tongue” that it claims represents its territory in the South China Sea, spans 1.3 million square miles; that’s larger than the whole of India. That its civilian maritime assets will be able to patrol all of that by themselves is dubious. Quite assuredly, the PLA Navy will need to step in if Beijing really intends on keeping watch on every bit of its “indisputable” territoriality into the future. But indeed Beijing is playing the long game. It’s using its less provocative civilian maritime assets in a variety of different ways now to make it altogether intolerable for other claimants to continue vying for control of sectors of the South China Sea. At the same time, Beijing is building up its blue-water navy capabilities and looking towards the future when it can one day police the South China Sea in much the same way that Washington, as Kaplan notes, policed the Greater Caribbean in the 20th century; with a mix of invested diplomacy and military deterrence. Until that’s the case, Beijing will rely on its civilian forces to freeze the status quo until it can change it.

Brent Crane is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. 

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