China’s Fishing Fleets Are Fighting a Shadowy War to Expand the Country

We should not mistake them for ragtag fishermen acting on their own.

“When our country needs us, we will go without a second thought to defend China’s rights,” said Chen Yuguo in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

If Chen were a sailor in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or perhaps an officer of the Chinese Coast Guard, his pledge to use force for his country would not be particularly noteworthy.

But Mr. Chen is a fisherman.

As captain of a trawler based in the port of Tanmen, Chen is one of China’s 6 million plus fishermen. He pilots one of the country’s 2,600 distant-water fishing ships.

And much of this massive fleet is charged with more than ordinary fishing. China indeed “needs” them, as Chen said, but not to “defend China’s rights.” Instead, the Chinese government uses its huge fishing fleets to take control of territory that does not rightfully belong to Beijing.

‘Fish, Protect, Occupy and Control’

China analysts commonly discuss the fact that Beijing has both the largest navy in the world and also the largest coast guard. But far less frequently acknowledged is that these two official maritime forces are reinforced by the world’s largest fishing fleet.

And the reinforcement the fishing fleet provides is not as haphazard as it may look at first glance.

“This is in no way a collection of innocent, random, patriotic fishermen,” said Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. “China likes to have that camouflage and likes to misportray it in that way,” he said, “but it is not the case at all.”

A Chinese fishing boat captain removes the national flag on his boat after bringing in the last catch for the season in Qionghai, South China’s Hainan province.
AFP/Getty Images

Erickson said much of China’s fishing fleet functions as a “maritime militia.” They are “trained, equipped and organized directly by the pla’s local military commands,” Erickson said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. “[I]t answers to the very top of China’s centralized bureaucracy: Commander in Chief Xi Jinping himself.”

Christopher Rawley, a United States Navy Reserve captain and a member of the board of directors of the Center for International Maritime Security, agrees with Erickson’s assessment: “When you look at the thousands and thousands of fishing boats operating out of China, you really should consider them a third arm of Beijing’s naval presence,” according to a U.S Naval Institute’s paraphrase of Rawley.

Beijing uses this “third arm” as the advance guard to fight its expansionist battles in the South China Sea and beyond. And the fishing fleet’s involvement in China’s battles is not a rare occurrence. “Local fishermen have assisted more than 250 law enforcement operations at sea over the past three years,” the state-run China Daily reported in 2016. Since then, such instances have only become more routine.

First, fishing boats blaze a trail in disputed waters and confront the vessels of other nations; then the Chinese Coast Guard steps in; next come land reclamation projects; and it ends with militarization and domination.

The fishermen are happy to play their role despite the inherent dangers: Besides catching more fish in the contested waters than they would in the depleted areas off China’s coast, the fishermen also feel they are accomplishing their patriotic obligation: “It is our water,” Chen said, referring to almost the entire South China Sea. “But if we don’t fish there, how can we claim it is our territory?”

The basic strategy, according to international security expert Alan Dupont, happens in this sequence: First, fishing boats blaze a trail in disputed waters and confront the vessels of other nations; then the Chinese Coast Guard steps in; next come land reclamation projects; and it ends with militarization and domination. “I call the strategy ‘fish, protect, occupy and control,’” Dupont said.

And the strategy is working.

Securing the Scarborough Shoal

If a Filipino fisherman today wants to visit the Scarborough Shoal, he can only do so with the permission of Chinese authorities.

But this has not always been the situation.

After all, Scarborough is only 120 nautical miles from the Philippines, which means it lies well within the area that international law calls Manila’s “Exclusive Economic Zone,” or eez. The United Nations Law of Seas says a country’s territorial borders extend 200 nautical miles from its coast, and this maritime region constitutes that country’s eez. Any natural resources found within a given nation’s eez belong exclusively to that country.

But in 2012, the Philippine Navy caught a group of Chinese fishing ships anchored at the Scarborough Shoal—some 550 miles from the closest Chinese land. Philippine authorities boarded the vessels and found considerable amounts of endangered marine species in the hands of the fishermen. But before they could make any arrests, two Chinese Coast Guard ships arrived and worked with the fishing vessels to cordon off the mouth of the lagoon.

A 10-week-long standoff ensued. Throughout the period, vessels from the pla Navy floated on the horizon, sending the Philippines a silent signal of the force Beijing was willing to use. Finally, the U.S. brokered what it believed was a deal for both sides to withdraw and return to the status quo ante.

As stipulated by the agreement, the Philippines pulled out. But China did not honor its end of the bargain. Instead, Beijing kept its maritime vessels at Scarborough Shoal, and they remain there to this day on vigilant patrol.

“[T]here was no question that Beijing had scored a tactical victory at Manila’s expense by successfully seizing and occupying the disputed area,” said Ely Ratner, deputy director of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Program.

Thanks largely to the fishing fleet, Beijing won this gray-zone conflict. The Scarborough Shoal now effectively belongs to China.
Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe

Ratner and other analysts agree that if China had captured Scarborough with overt military or coast guard vessels, it would have likely prompted a weightier response from the U.S. and considerable backlash from the international community. But since Beijing used nonmilitary vessels as the front line, the skirmish remained in a gray zone.

And the gray zone—meaning a place between war and peace in which conflict occurs but stays beneath the threshold of conventional warfare—is precisely where China wants these types of territorial clashes to take place.

Thanks largely to the fishing fleet, Beijing won this gray-zone conflict. The Scarborough Shoal now effectively belongs to China.

After China’s victory was clear, state media lauded the fishermen as an “advanced militia unit.” President Xi personally praised the fishermen who took part, and advised the fleet to more actively back China’s “island and reef” development projects.

The HYSY 981 Standoff

On May 2, 2014, China placed its hysy 981 offshore oil rig in waters near the Paracel Islands, about 120 miles from Vietnam’s coast. Vietnam decried the move as a clear infringement of its sovereignty and sent 29 ships to the area to challenge it.

But China used all three of its maritime forces—the pla Navy, the Coast Guard and the fishing fleet—to form a 10-nautical-mile cordon around the oil rig. Altogether the Chinese had some 80 vessels surrounding hysy 981, and were able to forcibly repulse the Vietnamese. “All three of China’s sea forces were there,” Erickson said, adding that “they were all communicating and coordinating and they were acting together in a relatively effective manner.”

Over the next few weeks, a standoff took place and each side reported being rammed and water-cannoned by the other nation’s vessels. On May 26, a large, steel-hulled Chinese fishing boat was caught on video ramming and sinking a smaller Vietnamese fishing boat. The Vietnamese boat capsized, throwing eight of its crewmen into the sea. Two others remained in the cabin, but were able to swim out through a window that had broken during the attack.

“The attack is an intentional act that was aimed at killing Vietnamese fishermen,” said Nguyen Van Sy, an official with the company that salvaged the sunken ship.

The video can be watched here:

The incident marked a dramatic escalation in the standoff. And if China had sunk the Vietnamese vessel with a pla Navy or Coast Guard ship, the matter would almost certainly have provoked a meaningful response from the U.S. or other nations. But since Beijing was able to claim that the fishermen who sunk the ship were acting independently and only in self-defense, there was little kickback. China was able to leave the rig in the region, harvesting Vietnam’s oil, as long as it chose to.

The Diplomat said the hysy 981 standoff allowed China to achieve its “primary goals of broadcasting to its neighbors that a rising Vietnam alone could not stop it and the U.S. would not intervene.”

Once again, the victory for Beijing was thanks in large part to its fishing fleet.

A Page from Putin’s Playbook

Two months before the hysy 981 standoff, Russian President Vladimir Putin pried the Crimean Peninsula away from Ukraine and grafted it into Russia. Putin did not accomplish this illegal land grab with an overt military invasion. Instead, he sent Russian soldiers into Ukraine with the insignia removed from their uniforms and the signage taken off their vehicles.

By deploying these “little green men” instead of unconcealed troops, the Russian government had a degree of deniability, which hindered potential challenges. “Were they mercenaries? Could it be Crimean vigilantes? Or was this some unsanctioned adventure by a local commander?” asked Russian security affairs specialist Mark Galeotti. “[T]he lack of insignia on these ‘little green men’ and Moscow’s flat denial that they were Russian troops was enough to inject a moment’s uncertainty into the calculations in both Kiev and nato. [A]nd Russia was able to seize Crimea without a single fatal casualty.”

By the time of the Crimean annexation, China had already been using the “little blue men” of its fishing fleet as the advance guard to assert its expansionist territorial claims. But Putin’s success in Crimea may well have spurred the Chinese leadership to increase such hybrid warfare tactics.

Using “little blue men” not only gives Beijing a degree of deniability, but the quasi-civilian status of the fishermen complicates the rules of engagement for U.S. naval vessels; for coast guard personnel from the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea; and for any other official government entity trying to combat the illegal behavior.

Since these shadowy, hybrid war tactics have helped both China and Russia to successfully expand their domination, it is likely that Beijing and Moscow will continue relying on them.

Using “little blue men” not only gives Beijing a degree of deniability, but the quasi-civilian status of the fishermen complicates the rules of engagement for U.S. naval vessels; for coast guard personnel from the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea; and for any other official government entity trying to combat the illegal behavior.

‘Steering the World Toward War’

Many analysts are not particularly alarmed by China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and elsewhere. As Ratner said, “From their vantage point, accommodation is preferable to risking war over ‘a bunch of rocks.’”

But Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry has said that China’s takeover in this region is “steering the world toward war.” In our July 2016 issue, he wrote about the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. These islands are the main location where Chen Yuguo and numerous other fishermen currently focus on asserting Chinese dominance.

“China is ignoring these nations’ territorial claims,” Mr. Flurry wrote. “China is being aggressive and provocative,” and thereby challenging “seven decades of American naval dominance in the Pacific Rim.” This aggressive behavior “should alarm the world!” he wrote.

Speaking of the South China Sea, through which a full third of the world’s maritime commerce passes each year, Mr. Flurry wrote, “Since Japan’s defeat in World War ii, America has protected this vital trade route and brought peace to this part of the world.” But since the U.S. military is now retreating from the region, “other great powers are coming in to fill the vacuum,” he continued. “China is intimidating the nations of Southeast Asia into submission to its will. It is forcing these countries to do what it wants. Everything is headed in the direction of war.”

Mr. Flurry’s assessment of the South China Sea situation is based on the sure word of Bible prophecy.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God issues a solemn warning to the nations of Israel, explaining that if they reject Him, He will hand control over the world’s strategic sea gates to their enemies. And He warned that these enemy nations would use that control to besiege the nations of Israel: “And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trusted, throughout all thy land …” (Deuteronomy 28:52).

Mr. Flurry explained that this ancient warning is not just for ancient peoples. “It is a prophecy for the modern-day descendants of Israel,” he wrote. “Two nations in particular represent Israel in this end time: America and Britain.” These two countries “are full of terrible sins today, and God is going to correct them for that!” he wrote. “This prophecy and several others show that He will send foreign enemies to punish America and Britain!”

China’s push against the status quo in the South China Sea and other parts of its periphery is moving toward the fulfillment of this prophecy.

But Mr. Flurry makes clear that this approaching besiegement and war is connected to some astoundingly hope-filled news: “All this prophesied destruction is what it will take for God to reach this world!” he wrote. “After this, people will be ashamed—and they will get to know God! Ezekiel repeatedly talked about that inspiring conclusion (e.g. Ezekiel 6:7; 7:4; 11:10; 12:20; 13:9; 23:48-49; etc). Yes, there is a lot of bad news when you consider what it takes to get people to the point of knowing God. But ultimately, the outcome is spectacularly good news!”

To understand the inspiring details of this “spectacularly good news,” order a free copy of Mr. Flurry’s book Ezekiel: The End-Time Prophet.