For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
TAIPEI – Media headlines containing the term “Chinese fishing boats” and their crew are popping up at ever-shorter intervals. In waters in which China has sovereignty disputes, they have rammed foreign patrol boats, stabbed to death a coast guard official and challenged navy gunboats.
According to Beijing’s narrative, these daring men simply eke out their living where they are supposed to. However, China’s neighbors see the fishermen’s actions as low-intensity warfare.
For a long time after the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, fishing boats operating from China’s shores were assigned bizarre roles in the political realm. After their retreat to Taiwan in 1949, Kuomintang (KMT) forces rounded them up and loaded them onto
huge amphibious assault ships, only to bombard them with anti-communist propaganda and gifts before their release.
In the mid-1990s, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) prepared to invade Taiwan once the island sought independence, China began honing an “integrated dual-use national system”, which ensured that civilian resources of many kinds could be rapidly mobilized to support military operations in wartime.
Huge swarms of fishing boats played a prominent role in this system as they were destined to harass the Taiwanese coastal defense forces in the opening days of any conflict and subsequently to carry PLA invasion forces to the island. That such tactics were practiced in large-scale rehearsals became evident in 2002 when Chinese state media reported that several thousand small fishing vessels based in Fujian and Zhejiang held sea-crossing drills.
But in recent years, the fishing boats took on targets other than Taiwan. In September 2010, a Chinese trawler in disputed waters in the East China Sea collided with Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats, resulting in a major diplomatic dispute between Beijing and Tokyo.
In December 2011, a South Korean Coast Guard sergeant was fatally stabbed by a Chinese fisherman during a raid on trawlers in waters in the Yellow Sea, where, according to Beijing, China and South Korea had not yet agreed on the demarcation of Korea’s exclusive economic zone.
In early April, eight Chinese fishing boats were detected by the Philippine navy anchoring off the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island, in the South China Sea, leading to an ongoing high-profile sovereignty standoff between Beijing and Manila that is unprecedented in its intensity. “They are […] bringing in all these fishing boats and all we can do is resort to diplomacy,” Philippine regional military spokesman Major Loel Egos was recently quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.
Although an odd tactic at first glance, the mobilization of civilian assets is a plausible option Beijing can use to enforce its claims on waters that are believed to hold enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. The Philippines is already having international energy companies explore for oil and gas deposits off its coast, and as soon as those begun pumping, it was plain theft of China’s resources from Beijing’s perspective.
China has the choice between relinquishing its claims and open warfare, the latter option of which possibly endangering China’s economic miracle; or it alternatively finds a way to scare ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Petronas and their likes away from the region for the time being.
By creating – and maintaining – tensions with the help of fishing boats and semi-military surveillance vessels, as opposed to employing PLA Navy assets, Beijing makes Washington feel it does not have an obligation to directly intervene, while at the same time keeping the media focus on the spots, which in turn does a fine job in spooking would-be investors.
That this strategy of Beijing’s is somewhat successful can hardly be doubted: tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea’s gas-rich Reed Bank that erupted last year almost halted the work in the area of Forum Energy, a unit of the Philippines’ Philex Petroleum Corp, and in late April, amid the current stand-off, the Philippine government again acknowledged that China’s claims might affect Forum Energy’s operations.
Bringing the recent actions involving an ever-greater number of Chinese fishing boats more into this context is the matter that Manila is expected to award exploration contracts in July for 15 other oil and gas fields, two of which are in areas contested by China.
But it is not only for the role of a scarecrow that the fishing boats come in handy; on the domestic political front they are of good use to the Chinese leadership.
After the supposedly accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 by United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, the latest Chinese state media has turned to portraying China as the world’s most besieged underdog, thereby fanning nationalism and strengthening loyalty to the leadership. And if the country’s TV screens are now bombarded with footage showing US-backed rifle-waving Philippine marines rounding up humbly-dressed Chinese fishermen against the backdrop of a Philippine Navy gunboat, this effect is certainly cemented.
“All the Chinese fishermen involved are from the country’s southern Hainan province, and they are currently all safe and emotionally stable,” China’s official news agency Xinhua assured the public after law-enforcement ships shielded the crews from the heavily-armed Filipinos.
Asked by Asia Times Online, analysts agreed that the fishermen have objectives other than catching fish.
“In order to enforce its claims, the Chinese government has to take actions, such as the dispatching those fishing boats to disputed territorial waters, as well as their guarding,” said Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
“Those fishermen may not be militarily trained, but compensation from Chinese authorities [for losses of boats, injuries, detention by foreign countries, etc] will be inevitable.”
John F Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, does not doubt that the men are given concrete assignments by the Chinese government, or at least are encouraged in their actions.
“There is little chance they are fishing in disputed waters or where they may provoke Japan, South Korea or the Philippines on their own,” Copper said, adding that China wished to display its economic and military clout, especially to Japan, while the issues of sea lanes and oil may be at play as well.
“Also, making claims to territory conforms with the growth of Chinese nationalism, which the PLA has been and is successfully using to its advantage.”
Lai I-chung, a researcher at the Taiwan Thinktank, agreed that the fishermen clearly had military or paramilitary connections. He listed several indicators.
“Every Chinese fishing boat needs to report to authorities where it’s about to go before sailing out to sea,” Lai said. According to him, this explains why vessels belonging to the PLA Navy or other official boats were able to appear at the scene suspiciously quickly in a number of incidents.
Lai said that in the 2010 East China Sea collision with Japan’s Coast Guard ships, the fishing boat involved appeared to have carried equipment that pointed to military use. He pointed out that China had a long history of employing fishing boats and disguising official ships as such while executing low-intensity warfare missions.
“Basically, no ordinary Chinese fishermen would sail into hotly-disputed waters knowing they could lose all their earnings if they were not sure that their government would definitely come to their aid,” Lai concluded.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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