Photograph from Xinhua News showing a Chinese maritime militia ship in 2016. (ctto)

In response to the ongoing presence of over 200 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest with China earlier this week, demanding that China recall the vessels. Experts, the Philippine government, and the US Department of State have all suggested that this fleet is likely composed of ships from China’s maritime militia, an increasingly professionalized force of ostensible fishermen who answer to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command. Despite mounting evidence, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying claimed that these vessels are just “fishing boats” that are “taking shelter from the wind.” Likewise, China’s embassy in Manila denied the presence of any maritime militia ships. But even if the vessels in question were civilian fishermen, that would not preclude them from asserting control over Whitsun Reef or other disputed areas of the South China Sea at the behest of the Chinese state.


Thanks to China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system, which has embedded two-way short message service (SMS) capabilities, nearly every civilian fishing vessel operating in the South China Sea can perform maritime surveillance functions. According to a 2013 report from state-run broadcaster China National Radio, “generally, every fishing boat is a militia organization, while they are carrying out production, they must also attend to the mission of situation reporting, when a fishing boat discovers an illegal fishing boat entering into our territorial waters, fishermen can use the BeiDou system to report to the ship monitoring center.” China National Radio claims that, after receiving information from fishermen, the PLA then coordinates with maritime law enforcement forces to deal with the offending foreign vessel. A 2012 assessment from Hainan province confirms that actors in the Chinese party-state system have viewed the combination of BeiDou equipment and ordinary fishermen as an effective means of detecting and handling foreign fishing vessels.


This maritime surveillance role for ordinary fishermen was made possible by over a decade of investments in BeiDou-related communications infrastructure in the South China Sea. In 2007, the PRC Ministry of Agriculture—which had managed China Fisheries Law Enforcement before the agency was merged into the China Coast Guard—completed a BeiDou-based fisheries monitoring system in the Spratly Islands, which included building 11 ground stations and equipping over 600 fishing vessels with satellite equipment. Moreover, in 2010 Hainan province launched an initiative outfit fishing vessels with BeiDou. It aimed to equip over 6,000 fishing vessels with Beidou by the end of 2012; by the end of 2016, over 10,000 vessels had reportedly received the equipment. After recent investments in navigation infrastructure, China appears to have achieved 100 percent BeiDou coverage in the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and other claimed areas. (Click here to read more…)