Chinese fishing vessels set sail for the Spratly Islands. Photo: AFP

The shock troops of Beijing’s maritime empire-building are far more humble than the fleet of modern warships that paraded off Qingdao on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.

Even as President Xi Jinping was reviewing a sail-past of his new generation of guided missile destroyers and other modern warships, his equally potent small-boat navy was at work off the Philippines.

As I will describe, the fact that views of Xi’s navy were obscured by thick fog was more than symbolic and entirely appropriate.

For two years, scores and sometimes hundreds of Chinese fishing ships have been harassing, swarming and spying on Filipino construction crews upgrading infrastructure on the island of Thitu, known as Pagasa in the Philippines. This is the second largest naturally occurring island in the Spratly archipelago, and is home to about 100 Filipinos and a small military detachment.

The Thitu confrontation is part of a much larger, long-running dispute between Beijing and Manila over ownership of islands and islets in the Spratly group and other South China Sea features such as the Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef.

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Duterte driven to distraction

But the swarming of the seas around Thitu Island by hundreds of Chinese fishing trawlers has driven Philippines President Roderigo Duterte to distraction.

He came to power in 2016 vowing to repair tense relations with Beijing. By-and-large, he has been deferential towards Beijing, but the action around Thitu led him earlier this month to warn Beijing to “lay off,” and to threaten to launch suicide attacks against the Chinese ships if it did not.

All the evidence is that the Chinese ships are elements of the People’s Liberation Army’s Maritime Militia, which studies by the United States Naval War College estimate to include well over 300 vessels and close to 4,000 personnel, though that is probably a major underestimation.

These units are made up of civilian fishermen who receive regular military training and pay while they are under the command of the navy. Their ships are usually not armed, though some are.

However, the ships have reinforced bows to enable them to ram other ships, and are equipped with high-powered water hoses, which are an effective weapon against the crews of other small ships. Most also have sophisticated communications equipment both for espionage operations, and so they can be easily marshaled and deployed while under military command.

Beijing’s irregular forces

The beauty of these militia units from Beijing’s point of view is the ambiguity of their status. Other coast guards, navies or fishery protection units find it impossible to know conclusively whether they are facing regular Chinese fishing vessels and crews, or Beijing’s irregular forces who have a clear military purpose in mind.

By comparison, it was much easier to identify the heavily-armed contingents of “Little Green Men” without national or regimental insignia that Russian President Vladimir Putin used in 2014 to seize the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Because of the difficulty in identifying Xi’s fishermen-soldiers the security forces of other South China Sea littoral states involved, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, usually act with restraint. They try to avoid using force that might cause injuries or deaths, and thus international accusations of human rights abuses.

Beijing and its Maritime Militia have used this restraint by their opponents to their own advantage for 40 years and more. The militia has been key to Beijing’s strategy over territorial disputes in all of China’s surrounding seas and to evading serious confrontations when extending the territory under its control.

In 1974, the militia was at the forefront of the sea battle in which Beijing’s forces captured the last island held by Vietnam in the Paracel archipelago in the northern reaches of the South China Sea.

Trawlers built for ramming, spying

Since then, Sansha in the Paracel Islands has been developed as a base for the most militarised, professional and well-paid units in the Maritime Militia. According to Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the Sansha fishermen are also equipped with close to 100 purpose-built trawlers with reinforced hulls for ramming and sophisticated communications suites for spying.

The Sansha fishing fleet is used as a fast response unit to confront any activity Beijing considers an affront to its territorial claims.

In March 2009 the USS Impeccable, a US spy ship, was about 100 km south of China’s Hainan Island. It was trying to monitor traffic in and out of the submarine base at Sanya on the southern tip of the island.

Chinese warships and coast guard cutters approached the Impeccable and sent warnings for it to leave the area. When it did not, the ship was swarmed by Maritime Militia trawlers, which not only blocked its passage, but used grapple hooks to snag the Impeccable’s towed sonar array used to track submarines.

The Impeccable might have seen the Chinese warships or Coast Guard cutters as threatening enough to fire on them. The innocent-looking militia trawlers were able to get the job done without a shot being fired.

In May and June 2011 the militia trawlers were again in action, this time against research ships operating within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and looking for evidence of submarine oil and gas reserves. Maritime Militia ships cut the towed survey cables of both the Binh Minh and the Viking 2.

These incidents prompted most major oil companies to cancel exploration agreements with Vietnam.

Three years later, in May 2014, the shoe was on the other foot. When Beijing sent the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil platform to disputed waters southwest of the Paracel Islands and within the exclusive economic zone off Vietnam’s east coast, Hanoi deployed its own maritime militia trawlers to try to disrupt the operation.

Beijing responded with its own militia trawlers, and there was a low-intensity sea battle with both sides ramming the other’s ships and using high-powered water hoses against the crews. At least six crew members were injured and one Vietnamese vessel was sunk after being rammed.

Thus the militia has been at the forefront of Beijing’s campaign over the last 30 years to seize control over the South China Sea.

Seven militarized islands

Maritime Militia ships led the charge when Beijing occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in 1994. The feature, also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, has since been built into an island by Beijing’s forces, and is now one of seven militarized islands it has created in the South China Sea.

In 2012, militia fishing vessels again led the charge for Beijing’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, which had been clearly part of the Philippines’ territory since the early 18th century.

The seizing of this territory by Beijing led the Manila government to launch an action at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In July 2016 the court ruled that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over any areas of the South China Sea.

Beijing has dismissed the court ruling with contempt and has doubled down on taking possession of the South China Sea. Most of the construction of the seven islands equipped with airfields and military outposts has been done since the court judgment.

Ships of the Maritime Militia have also been used to trespass into territorial waters around the Japanese-owned Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu Tai.

Senaku Islands incident

For decades the Japanese Coast Guard, on orders from Tokyo, monitored Chinese trawlers operating in territorial waters off the islands, but did not interfere. That changed in March 2010, when about 30 Chinese trawlers invaded Japanese territorial waters around the islands, and another 100-or-so Chinese fishing vessels lurked just outside the territorial zone.

The Japanese Coast Guard ordered the Chinese ships to leave, and all did except the Minjinyu 5179, which not only refused to budge, but then rammed the side of the Japanese ship.

The captain and crew were arrested, and the captain was put on trial and convicted. This led to a heated diplomatic exchange between Tokyo and Beijing, and a round of economic sanctions.

Since then there have been relatively few incursions around the islands by the Maritime Militia, but the number of overflights by Chinese military aircraft has grown dramatically.

Several commentators this week noted the apparent efforts by Beijing to avoid provocation in the 70th-anniversary celebrations. About 20 ships from other navies, including Japan, took part in the sail-past. And the holding of the event off Qingdao in the Yellow Sea rather than in the South China Sea was interpreted as an expression of goodwill.

But it is perhaps easy to be magnanimous when the trailblazers of imperial expansion are not the destroyers, aircraft carriers and submarines of the naval fleet, but the trained and highly-motivated crews of Beijing’s Maritime Militia trawlers.

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