While world media attention focuses mainly on opposing military forces in the tension-ridden South China Sea, a mostly quiet but dangerous fishing war in the region has been leading to clashes and confrontations.
This is partly because of the buildup of an aggressive Chinese fishing fleet that gains cover from and works closely with the Chinese military and coast guard forces.
But one underlying cause is a growing appetite for fish both in China and in Southeast Asia even as fish stocks decline in the region.
A series titled “Fish Wars” published by the Straits Times of Singapore in April this year summed up the situation well by saying that growing competition among fishermen in the region is “fueling rows over maritime borders and fishery rights.”
At the same time The Washington Post reported from the region that fishermen are “increasingly at the front line of the South China Sea disputes.”
This has meant an increase in confrontations between Chinese fishing boats and those of fishermen from several other countries in the region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
The stakes are high for all of the countries bordering the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is larger than the Mediterranean Sea and is believed to harbor large oil and gas deposits. Most important to the United States and other major trading nations such as Japan, ships passing through this region carry more than $5 trillion in cargo to and from the growing economies of East and Southeast Asia.
Seafood resources are sometime overlooked as major assets for the surrounding nations, but they are an important source of employment and much-sought-after food.
According to a study done by the University of British Columbia in 2015, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam alone account for more than 330,000 fishing vessels in the South China Sea. Together they provide employment for more than 1.8 million fishermen.
And those numbers are likely to be an underestimate given the significant number of small-scale and unlicensed fishers working in the region.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the serious clashes in the region between fishing vessels have occurred between Chinese boats on the one hand and boats from the Philippines and Vietnam on the other.
The fishing fleets from these three countries greatly outnumber those deployed by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Stratfor, a U.S.-based firm that provides strategic analysis and forecasts, predicts meanwhile that China will keep expanding the military role of its fishing fleet.
“China’s rivals in the South China Sea will also rely on civilian fleets” to aid in their assertion of territorial rights and claims, says Stratfor in an analysis published on June 16.
This will then raise the risk of “short, sharp crises unfolding as the disputed waters become more congested,” the firm says.
“Hundreds of thousands of tiny fishing boats are difficult to track, direct and control,” says Stratfor, adding that China has “little assurance that they can be trusted to act on China’s behalf without starting a messy international incident.”
To fix matters, the Chinese government has created a special maritime force—fishermen equipped with light arms, better ships, and better monitoring equipment.
China’s maritime militia
China’s maritime militia has for a number of years been under-studied and often overlooked.
But thanks to pioneering research done by Andrew S. Erickson and his colleagues at the U.S. Naval War College, we now know a great about how the militia operates.
In an article published in the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ magazine Survival, Ryan D. Martinson, a scholar at the war college, explains that China deploys unarmed or lightly armed maritime law-enforcement ships to perform escort missions.
These include Chinese fishing trawlers, seismic-survey ships, and drilling rigs.
“These operations…are an integral, but under-studied, part of China’s strategy to advance the country’s position in its maritime disputes,” says Martinson.
China claims jurisdiction over nearly two million square kilometers of water in the South China Sea. And much of this territory is claimed by other states, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.
Three types of forces perform escort operations for civilian activities in disputed waters in the region: the Chinese Navy, maritime-law enforcement forces, and the maritime militia.
“Most maritime law-enforcement vessels are unarmed, or only lightly armed, allowing them to operate aggressively without conjuring up the specter of gunboat diplomacy…,” Martinson says.
Maritime militia, comprising mostly civilian fishermen are paid to contribute to escort operations. They are most effective at warding off fishing vessels from other countries.
In the short term, analysts are watching for a ruling, expected soon, from the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case made by the Philippines against claims made by China in the South China Sea.
China is a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the SEA (UNCLOS). But Beijing insists that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction in the case and has signaled that it won’t be bound by any decision that it makes.
In his article, Martinson says that China is currently motivated in large part by desires to exploit oil and gas resources and may begin to do in the Spratly Island chain
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim all of the Spratly Islands.
“There is evidence that Chinese policymakers may already be preparing for oil and gas development in the Spratlys
Recent investments in the Chinese Coast Guard cutter fleet “are certainly consistent with ambitions of greater economic expansion in these waters,” he says.
China has reclaimed land and built facilities on the Spratlys.
A wide range of experts seem to agree that China's long-term aim is to dominate the South China Sea regardless of resistance from the United States and several Southeast Asian nations.
So we can expect China to keep pushing on several fronts to expand its control over the territory it claims—in the air, on the ground, and with submarines under the sea.
But it's important to remember that China's fishing fleet will often be on the front lines and several steps ahead of everyone else.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s executive editor.