Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, maritime incidents involving Chinese fishermen have increased over the past few years. Some of these incidents have sparked diplomatic and even security tensions between China and its neighbors. Mainstream media and a substantial body of academic literature attribute these fishing incidents and the growing presence of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters, particularly in the South China Sea, to China’s strategic and political motives, arguing that these fishermen are actually members of a maritime militia who are positioned to conduct a “people’s war” at sea in any future conflict. Recently, a senior US State Department official claimed that “China is using its fishing fleets with armed escorts to bolster maritime claims in disputed territory”, and “it does point to an expanding presence of Chinese — sort of military and paramilitary forces — and used in a way that is provocative and potentially destabilising.”
There is no secret that all the South China Sea claimant parties view their fishermen as important defenders of their respective claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Both China and Vietnam have a long tradition of militia forces, and have taken efforts to expand their maritime militia forces in the past few years.
Nonetheless, the securitized fishery discourse is overblown and has four major flaws.
First, the fishing incidents involving Chinese fishermen have occurred not only in the disputed waters in the South and East China Seas where China has an interest to strengthen its maritime claims. Similar incidents have also occurred in other parts of the world: in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of South Korea, Russia, North Korea, Indonesia, Palau, Argentina, and South Africa. As a matter of fact, most of the fishing incidents involving Chinese fishermen happened in the Yellow Sea. Even in the South China Sea, fishing incidents involving Chinese fishermen did not only occur in the disputed waters of the Spratly Islands, but also in other parts of the region.
Evidence include the recent illegal fishing cases of Chinese fishermen in the Philippines’ waters near Batanes, and in Taiwanese waters near the shore of Tongsha Island. In fact, the primary factor behind the rising number of incidents involving Chinese fishermen is the ongoing outward expansion of China’s marine fishery sector, attributed to excess capacity coupled with depleting resources in China’s traditional fishing grounds.
Second, the securitized fishery discourse is too state-centric to take into account the roles of other critical players, particularly fishermen and local governments. The reach of the state has always been limited in the rural areas, particularly in the coastal fishing villages. It is important to note that fishermen are self-motivated economic players who have the ultimate goal of earning more money. In the case of the South China Sea, there is a more significant factor than government’s maritime militia policy driving the Chinese fishermen to the frontline of the maritime disputes. It is the highly-valued marine species: giant clams, red coral, and sea turtles. Furthermore, under the country’s zoning regulations, distant-water fishing and fishing under bilateral agreements with foreign countries are both under the jurisdiction of the central government while offshore fishing and inshore fishing are under the jurisdiction of local governments. This is to say, fishery issues in the South China Sea are under the jurisdiction of the Hainan provincial government.
Similar incidents have also occurred in the exclusive economic zones of South Korea, Russia, North Korea, Indonesia, Palau, Argentina, and South Africa.
Third, while it is true that the Chinese government provides fishing-fuel and ship construction subsidies to its fishermen, these have little to do with the South China Sea disputes. The fishing fuel subsidy was introduced in 2006 as part of China’s great overhaul of agricultural subsidies aimed at boosting fishermen’s incomes and combatting illegal fishing via squeezing out “black ships.” The central government subsidy for the upgrading and renovation of fishing vessels was introduced in 2012. This was also a nationwide policy. One key objective was to phase out the very damaging bottom trawler, canvas stow-net fishing, and large single-ship light-luring purse-seiners. Furthermore, the special fishing-fuel subsidy for fishing in the Spratly Islands was introduced in 1995, long before the South China Sea dispute emerged as a key security issue. The main objective of the subsidy was to cover part of fishermen’s excessive fuel cost for long-distance sailing. According to Article 3 (15, 17) of China’s Spratly Island Fishing Regulations, the fishermen are required to keep a reasonable distance away from the islands, reefs, and oil rigs controlled by foreign countries in the disputed areas and refrain from confrontational actions.
Fourth, China’s maritime militia policy should not be taken out of the context. Similar to that of US, militias have always been an important part of China’s armed forces. For decades, China’s militia force has been predominantly land-based. The phenomenal expansion of China’s maritime interests has underscored the need to rebalance the militia structure and strengthen the maritime militia at the same time.
However, there are two points worth noting. One is that strengthening the maritime militia is not all about the fisheries sector. In fact, it covers many other sectors as well. For instance, in June 2015, China approved a set of technical guidelines to ensure that that all civilian shipbuilders’ new vessels are suitable for military use in an emergency. These guidelines covered five categories of vessels: container, roll-on/roll-off, multipurpose, bulk carrier, and break bulk.
The other point is that developing the maritime militia — the fishing militia in particular — is not the same as “militarizing” the fishermen. Although the “people’s war” concept has long been considered as one of the key pillars of China’s military doctrine, this concept has evolved over time: from the traditional “people’s war” to “peoples’ war” under modern conditions and to the current “peoples’ war” in the twenty-first century. The key change is that guerrilla warfare is no longer included in the role of the militia. Instead, the focus has shifted to providing logistics and transportation for conventional forces. This is exactly the point made by Xi Jinping during his meeting with the Tanmen militia. Xi told the fishing militia that they should not only lead fishing activities but also collect oceanic information and support the country’s construction of islands in the South China Sea.
Additionally, practical factors such as the rapidly-changing demographics (the aging of the traditional fishermen and the influx of inland-peasant workers) of the marine fisheries sector, and conflicts of interests between different ministries and departments related to the maritime militia pose severe constraints to the success of the maritime militia program.