A Chinese scientific ship bristling with surveillance equipment docked in a Sri Lankan port. Hundreds of fishing boats anchored for months at a time among disputed islands in the South China Sea. Andocean-going ferries, built to be capable of carrying heavy vehicles and large loads of people, David Rising reported for the Associated Press (AP).
Photo Insert: Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka
All are ostensibly civilian ships, but experts and uneasy regional governments say they are part of a Chinese civil-military fusion strategy, little concealed by Beijing, that enhances its maritime capabilities.
It is increasing its military activities around the self-governing island of Taiwan, seeking new security agreements with Pacific islands, and building artificial islands in disputed waters to fortify its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the US and its allies have challenged.
The civilian vessels do more than just augment the raw numbers of ships, performing tasks that would be difficult for the military to carry out.
In the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, for example, China pays trawlers more than they can make by fishing simply to drop anchor for a minimum of 280 days a year to support Beijing’s claim to the disputed archipelago, said Gregory Poling, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
“China is able to use nominally civilian vessels that are clearly state directed, state paid to eat away the sovereignty of its neighbors, but then plausibly deny that the state is responsible,” he said.
China has been using civilian fishing trawlers for military purposes for decades but has significantly increased the numbers recently with the creation of a “Spratly Backbone Fleet” out of a government subsidy program begun under President Xi Jinping, which helps cover building new vessels, among other things.
Those ships “largely appeared almost overnight” after China constructed port infrastructure a few years ago on the artificial islands it built in the Spratlys that could be used for resupply, Poling said. Now there are about 300 to 400 vessels deployed there at any given time, he said.
In addition to about 800 to 1,000 commercial fishing boats in the Spratly fleet, China has approximately 200 other vessels as part of a professional maritime militia, according to a November study co-authored by Poling based on an analysis of official Chinese reports, satellite imagery, and other sources.
The professional militia is better equipped, with trained crews and under direct state control, and is used for more aggressive operations such as harassing foreign oil and gas operations, Poling said.