A Chinese fishing vessel appears in a sensitive location—near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, a South China Sea reef, or just offshore from a U.S. military base. Is it an “ordinary” fishing boat, or is it maritime militia?
This straightforward question seldom yields straightforward answers. China does not publish a roster of maritime militia boats. That would undermine the militia’s key advantages—secrecy and deniability. Nor is it common for Chinese sources to recognize the militia affiliations of individual boats. Analysts can gather clues and make a case that a vessel is likely maritime militia, or not. That process requires painstaking effort, and the results are rarely definitive.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) may have made that process much easier, at least in the most contested parts of the South China Sea—the Spratly Islands. Since 2014, the PRC has built hundreds of large Spratly fishing vessels, collectively called the “Spratly backbone fleet.” As I recently suggested at War on the Rocks, most if not all of these vessels are maritime militia affiliated. This insight can help overcome the perennial challenge of differentiating wayward Chinese fishermen from covert elements of China’s armed forces.
Backbone Boats are Militia Boats
In late 2012, PRC leaders decided to invest heavily in the modernization of China’s marine fishing fleet. Prompted by a proposal made by 27 scholars at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, they implemented a series of policies to help fishing boat owners replace their small, old wooden vessels with larger, steel-hulled craft. These programs provided subsidies to large segments of the Chinese fishing industry. But the most generous support was reserved for a specific class of fisherman: i.e., those licensed to operate in the “Spratly waters,” the 820,000 square kilometers of Chinese-claimed land and sea south of 12 degrees latitude.
The Chinese government, both at the central and local levels, allocated large sums of money to reimburse fishing boat owners willing to build new Spratly boats. Hundreds of Chinese fishing boat owners took them up on this offer. The new boats constituted the “Spratly backbone fleet.” (Click here to read more…)