China’s Front-Line Fishermen

TANMEN:  In the disputed waters of the South China Sea, fishermen are the wild card.

China is using its vast fishing fleet as the advance guard to press its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, experts say. That is not only putting Beijing on a collision course with its Asian neighbors but also introducing a degree of unpredictability that raises the risk of periodic crises.

In the past few weeks, tensions have flared with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam as Chinese fishermen, often backed up by coast guard vessels, have ventured far from their homeland and close to other nations’ coasts. These are just the latest conflicts in China’s long-running battle to expand its fishing grounds and simultaneously exert its maritime dominance.

“The Chinese authorities consider fishermen and fishing vessels important tools in expanding China’s presence and the country’s claims in the disputed waters,” said Zhang Hongzhou, an expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Fishermen are increasingly at the front line of the South China Sea disputes,” Zhang said, “and fishing incidents could trigger even bigger diplomatic and security tensions between China and regional countries.”

Here, in the fishing port of Tanmen on the southern island of Hainan, 50-year-old captain Chen Yuguo was in the wheelhouse of his trawler last week, carrying out minor repairs after a six-week fishing trip to the disputed Spratly Islands.

A portrait of “Comrade” Mao Zedong hung in a place of honor behind him, alongside an expensive satellite navigation system supplied by the Chinese government. Chen said catches are much better in the Spratlys than in China’s depleted inshore waters, but the captain said he is also fulfilling his patriotic duty.

“It is our water,” he said, “but if we don’t fish there, how can we claim it is our territory?”

Early this month, Vietnam seized a Chinese ship that it said was supplying fuel to Chinese fishing boats in its waters.

The biggest flare-up came on March 20, when Indonesian officials boarded a Chinese fishing vessel close to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. As an Indonesian vessel began towing the boat to shore, a Chinese coast guard ship intervened to ram the fishing boat, pushing it back into the South China Sea – until the Indonesians released the tow line.

Indonesia sets great store on its friendly relations with China, but its government responded angrily, saying it felt that its efforts to maintain peace in the disputed waters had been “sabotaged.” Defense officials vowed to send bigger naval vessels to defend its patrol boats in the region, to consider introducing military conscription to remote islands in the archipelago, and even to deploy U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to the Natunas to ward off “thieves.”

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, drawing a “nine-dash line” around its claims that passes close to the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam – and the Natunas.

China blames the United States for militarizing the South China Sea, citing President Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia, a recent deal to post U.S. conventional forces on five military bases in the Philippines for the first time in decades, and ongoing military exercises between the two countries.

But China, Dupont said, is pursuing its own strategic plan to dominate the Western Pacific and push the United States out, trying to take advantage of an Obama administration it believes to be distracted by other global crises. But Beijing’s “opportunist” policy is already backfiring, he said, uniting many countries in the region against China.

Their fishing boats also helped deliver construction materials for China’s land reclamation and construction program in the Spratlys. Last October, when the USS Lassen conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near Subi Reef, the Chinese navy kept a respectful distance, but smaller merchant or fishing vessels came much closer and even crossed the destroyer’s bow, Defense News reported. Experts say those boats were probably manned by militia members.

Andrew S. Erickson, at the U.S. Navy War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, calls them China’s “little blue men,” comparing them to Russia’s “little green men,” the armed men in unmarked uniforms who played a leading role in the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.

As well as giving Beijing a degree of deniability, their quasi-civilian status also complicates the rules of engagement for U.S. naval vessels.

Full article: China’s Front-Line Fishermen (NDTV)

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