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Bigger fish to fry than militias in the South China Sea

Authors: Sam Bateman and Zhang Hongzhou, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Fishing incidents have emerged as a major threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. Incidents involving fishing vessels and maritime law enforcement vessels occur regularly — sometimes with serious consequences.

In March 2016, a diplomatic row erupted between China and Indonesia after an Indonesian patrol boat arrested a Chinese fishing vessel for fishing near the Natuna Islands. Indonesia only released the vessel after the intervention of a Chinese coast guard vessel. After an incident in September 2017 in which Philippine Navy soldiers killed two Vietnamese fisherman, the Navy was held to account for using unreasonable force in pursuing a vessel that was fishing illegally.

Chinese vessels have figured prominently in South China Sea fishing incidents. A major US think tank has estimated that a Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel was involved in at least 71 per cent of the 45 major incidents identified in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2016.

Recent fishing incidents in the South China Sea are often attributed to some Chinese fishing vessels acting as a maritime militia. This is seen as part of China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the South China Sea. But this argument is often exaggerated. It overestimates Beijing’s centralised control of Chinese fishing activity and of the so-called maritime militia, which is often actually under the control of provincial governments. It also does not recognise that the concept of a militia force is deeply entrenched in China’s military doctrine both onshore and at sea. There is nothing new in China about the idea of a maritime militia being used as an instrument of government.

The notion of arming fishing vessels and developing a maritime militia is also not unique to China. Vietnam operates a similar force in the South China Sea, and the Philippines has been sending armed fishing vessels into the contested waters: eleven Chinese fishermen were arrested in 2014 on the disputed Half Moon Shoal by Philippine law enforcement officials who were disguised as fishermen.

It is overly simplistic to view China’s maritime militia as part of China’s aggressive activity in the South China Sea. Much wider economic and social factors are at work domestically in China, and the regional and international scene is more complex than observers typically assume. This bigger picture includes the widespread practices of arming fishing vessels in the South China Sea, of over-fishing and of fishing for endangered species in what were previously ‘fish-rich’ waters.

The ‘Chinese fishing militia’ narrative finds its most vocal disseminators among US commentators, as the narrative helps to justify US concerns in the South China Sea. In November 2016, US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift stated that he was concerned about China’s maritime militia. The United States Department of Defense annual report to the US Congress on China’s military and security developments in 2017 notes that China’s maritime militia has played a significant role in a number of military campaigns and coercive incidents over the years. These incidents include the 2011 harassment of Vietnamese survey vessels, the 2012 Scarborough Reef standoff and the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig standoff. Many US defence commentators therefore see China’s maritime militia as a force multiplier and as posing an operational challenge that requires an expansion of US and allied force structures.

The exaggeration of the fishing vessel narrative erodes trust and makes fisheries management in the South China Sea even more difficult than it already is. It does not help the littoral states to avoid a ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario and manage fisheries, nor does it help counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It would be useful if China and Vietnam reconsidered their fishing militia policies, as these policies only spur increased militarisation of the sea and make joint fisheries management more difficult.

A document similar to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, an agreement between 21 Pacific Rim navies, would also help prevent and manage the risks of incidents that involve civil law enforcement and fishing vessels. While there have been calls for the existing Code to be extended to cover fishing vessels, regional coast guards have justifiably tended to oppose the extension of the Code to their operations.

To redress this situation, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue is developing a set of Common Operating Principles to apply to law enforcement vessels in the South China Sea. These principles will have to be endorsed through an appropriate regional forum to be able to sway the claimant countries and prevent further incidents in the South China Sea.

Sam Bateman is Professorial Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong, and Advisor to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Zhang Hongzhou is Research Fellow at the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A longer version of this commentary was published by Contemporary Southeast Asia in August 2017.

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