The Fishing Community at the Centre of China’s Maritime Conflict

As fishermen hit by depleted fish stocks sail farther away from the Chinese coasts, they double as unlikely ‘civilian soldiers’ in China’s sovereignty war in regional seas.

Fishing boats with Chinese national flags are seen at a harbour in Tanmen, Hainan province, April 5, 2016. Reuters/Megha Rajagopalan.

Fishing boats with Chinese national flags are seen at a harbour in Tanmen, Hainan province, April 5, 2016.
Reuters/Megha Rajagopalan.

A hero’s welcome awaited Chen Qiyuan, captain of a Chinese fishing vessel, and his crew when they returned home to Tanmen, a coastal fishing village in China’s southern province of Hainan in June 2015, after spending a year imprisoned in the Philippines’ island province of Palawan. Nine Tanmen fishermen, including Chen and his 64-year-old father Chen Zehao, were imprisoned by the Philippine authorities on charges of poaching and catching endangered wildlife species, such as sea turtles, off Philippine waters in the South China Sea. During the trial, Chen and his crew defiantly argued that their arrest by the Philippines was unlawful as they were well within Chinese territorial waters, in which they had fished for generations.

Beijing’s civilian soldiers

In the controversial waters of the South China Sea, China’s modest fishermen double as Beijing’s foot soldiers, advancing the country’s sovereignty claims and economic rights. Coping with depleted fish stock in nearby waters, civilian fishermen sail away from Chinese shores into the contested regional sea. In the process, they end up at the frontline of marine conflict.

“The fishermen’s economic activities are very important proof of China’s claims in the South China Sea,” said Hongzhou Zhang, an expert on China’s fishing and maritime policies in Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, during a seminar in early June. 

China claims upto 90% of the South China Sea and is locked in a prolonged territorial row with the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan on the issue. In the past few months, tensions flared because of the increasing presence of Chinese fishermen in foreign territories of the troubled sea. Last month, Philippine authorities intercepted two Chinese fishing ships sailing in its territorial waters without prior permission. The fishermen had hoisted an upside down Philippine flag. Chinese fishing vessels, stocked with fresh fish, were also detained in Indonesian waters some months ago. Recent media reports say that civilian fishermen, often dubbed as Beijing’s “maritime militia”, are at the forefront of China’s maritime offensive, marrying everyday fishing with military activity for national struggles. 

Better marine catch for business

In recent years, the “little blue men” – as the Chinese fishermen are called in diplomatic lingo – face dwindling fish stock in waters closer to home shores.

“The stock of fish is exhausted in China’s nearby waters due to overfishing,” said Zhang. The Asian powerhouse happens to be the world’s largest exporter of fisheries products with a rapidly growing marine fisheries sector. According to estimates, Zhang said, in 2014 China produced 64.6 million metric tonnes of fisheries products. “China signed agreements with South Korea in the Yellow Sea and with Japan in the East China Sea. This also affected the marine resources available to fishermen”.

The search for a better catch of fish in a competitive market urge the fishermen to venture out into the deep sea far away from home shores. The stock of expensive marine resources, such as giant clams, is also said to have plummeted in recent years due to over-harvesting, further encouraging the fishermen to explore the distant waters of Asia’s disputed sea.

“In Tanmen fishing village, more and more fishermen are leaving traditional fishing activities to harvest giant clams and sea turtles for higher income. The handicraft industry employs nearly 100,000 people,” said Zhang. Since 2013, China has witnessed a massive boom in its giant clam handicraft industry. The shell of giant clams – an endangered sea species – is crafted into expensive ornaments, which can cost anything between $3 and $18,000 (20-120,000 yuan), according to a report published by the Straits Times in April this year.

The price of giant clams rose due to a shortage in supply and a spike in demand, forcing fishermen to explore distant territories in the South China Sea, including the waters of foreign countries such as the Philippines. 

Beijing’s political ambition

It suits Beijing’s political goal perfectly for fishermen to sail to the distant waters of the South China Sea, in search of better fish catch for profits. An official ban exists in China on the harvest of giant clams and other endangered marine species. But since 2013, in the wake of growing maritime conflict in the South China Sea, Beijing is said to have largely turned a blind eye to the country’s booming giant clam handicraft business.

“From the start of Ming dynasty in 1369 till today the Chinese fishermen fished in the southern part of the South China Sea. Chinese fishermen have traditional rights of fishing in these areas,” said an associate researcher with China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, who refused to be named.

The Spratly Islands, a group of islands and reefs in the South China Sea, are described by China as the traditional fishing ground of Tanmen’s fishermen. Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also make overlapping claims on the islands. “For generations Tanmen’s fishermen sailed as far as to the small islands and reefs in the South China Sea to catch sea species like oysters, coral reefs, giant clams and sea turtles. China claims that its fishermen were the first to discover these small islands in the South China Sea,” added Zhang.

The watershed moment of ordinary fishermen’s political action happened when President Xi Jinping, during a much-reported visit in 2013 to Tanmen Maritime Militia, an ordinary fishing collective turned military frontline unit in the Tanmen island village, urged fishermen to collect oceanic information and support the expansion of land mass in China’s “ancestral sea”. Fishing boats always remained central to China’s military activities. But Beijing expanded the military capacity of the fishing fleet by stepping up training, offering subsidies and ordering a state-owned fleet since 2013.

‘Western’ fear of ‘maritime militia’

Fishermen who are recruited into military organisations undergo military training and political education to promote China’s claims and interests, said Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy, researchers with the US Naval War College, in a column published in the Wall Street Journal in 2015. 

“There is greater coordination between the maritime militia, the coast guards and the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) in times of maritime crisis such as during Beijing’s oil rig stand-off with Vietnam,” said Li Nan, a visiting researcher with Singapore’s East Asian Institute. In 2014, Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing vessel of ramming intentionally into two of its ships in a disputed area in the South China Sea where Beijing undertook the operation of drilling of a giant oil rig.

But some observers of China say that not all fishermen would qualify as active military men. “Only 1% of the country’s total number of fishermen can strictly be called maritime militia who receive formal military training. The rest are mostly reserve forces,” said Zhang. China approximately has 21 million fishermen, including those who fish in the country’s inland waters.

China dismisses reports of ‘maritime militia’ as the West’s unfounded fear on the country’s growing military might. “The fishermen do not carry weapons for self-protection. Then how can they be called militia?” said the assistant research fellow with National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

A report published by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said that in the past, Chinese fishermen conveniently used Beijing’s territorial dispute as a ploy to avoid arrest when caught for poaching and illegal fishing in the Philippines.

“Fishermen also utter arguments of Beijing’s sovereignty claims to win financial support and subsidies from the central government,” said Zhang.

Nationalist sentiments have intensified in the South China Sea only in recent years. “The Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen traditionally maintained friendly relations in the sea. The Chinese fishermen collected giant clams and other sea species from those of other countries in the deep sea in exchange of food, beer and cigarettes,” said Zhang.

But the growing presence of Chinese fishermen in the disputed territories and foreign waters of the South China Sea in recent months has fuelled international speculation that Beijing is advancing a paramilitary fishing fleet or the ‘maritime militia’ to consolidate its powers in the regional sea.  “Most of the ocean-bound fishing vessels carrying the Chinese flag are the property of state-owned enterprises,” said Tom Hanson, a US Pacific Command visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in an email interview.

The speculations arise ahead of the ruling of a Hague-based international tribunal that is expected this month. The Philippines initiated a case in 2013 seeking clarification of UN maritime laws. The verdict of the tribunal could undermine China’s claims in the South China Sea. “When Chinese vessels are caught fishing in protected areas, their state-of-the-art communications gear allows them to call for assistance from the Chinese coast guard.  No other nation extends such protection to unlawful fishing activities,” added Hanson.

Apart from China, Vietnam is said to be one of the few countries to have a ‘maritime militia’. But for obvious reasons it is China’s “little men in blue” who grab the most attention.  

Suruchi Mazumdar submitted her doctoral thesis in Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.