19 April 2021

Manila’s Images Are Revealing the Secrets of China’s Maritime Militia

Ryan D. Martinson and Andrew S. Erickson,Manila’s Images Are Revealing the Secrets of China’s Maritime Militia,” Foreign Policy, 19 April 2021.

Details of the ships haunting disputed rocks show China’s plans.

Six Chinese fishing vessels believed to be part of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, including the Yuexinhuiyu 60138 and 60139, are moored together at Whitsun Reef on March 27. PHOTO PROVIDED BY PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT

The Philippines is regaining the initiative in the South China Sea. In an apparent policy shift, it has begun sharing unprecedented amounts of information about Chinese actions in the Spratly Islands, the archipelago of disputed rocks and reefs off the western coast of the Philippines. While Manila’s precise motives are unclear, its newfound transparency is creating fascinating new opportunities for understanding Beijing’s maritime strategy. This is especially true when it comes to China’s fleet of Spratly fishing vessels, some portion of which operates under the command of the Chinese military—units of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). Conceivably numbering thousands of vessels and with tens of thousands of personnel, this subcomponent of China’s armed forces is trained and equipped to support the People’s Liberation Army in advancing sovereignty claims to disputed features and sea areas.

Last week, the Philippine Coast Guard released images of Chinese fishing vessels moored at the Spratlys’ Whitsun Reef, taken by the crew of the BRP Cabra, a Coast Guard ship that approached close to the Chinese vessels. Gone are the hundreds of boats seen in March. What remains is a small number of Chinese fishing vessels, six of which are tied together in the lagoon.

One key point: The new photos and an accompanying video show that the vessels seen last week were the same six boats observed by the Cabra on its last patrol over two weeks ago. Real fishing vessels cannot afford to linger for weeks in a single spot like this, especially when the weather is perfect for fishing elsewhere. As the captains of these boats are plainly indifferent to the economic costs of inactivity, their protracted presence at Whitsun can only mean one thing: They are tasked with being there. Yes, China does sometimes pay ordinary fishers to linger in disputed space, but given the intense spotlight on Whitsun Reef it seems far more likely it has turned to the professionals. They are undoubtedly members of the PAFMM. … … …