China Seeks Maritime Dominance with Gunboat-filled 'Fishing Fleets'

China maintains an anchored presence in the contested waters of the South China Sea through fishing fleets, hundreds of vessels in scale, an undertaking imperative to the advancement of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a reimagining of the ancient Silk Road with which it plans to encircle the globe by 2049.

In March 2021, the Philippines called attention to a fleet of Chinese vessels occupying the Whitsun Reef, to which both China and the Philippines lay claim. The National Taskforce for the West Philippine Sea revealed more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels anchored in the reef.

Filipino fishermen, as they have done for generations, rely heavily on the rich waters around the Whitsun Reef for their livelihoods. They are now on the frontlines of what could become a critical moment for international conflict.

"It is our own ocean, but instead of catching fish, we are too afraid to go back there because somebody might attack us," Dionesio Cabacungan, a fisherman at Sisiman Port, Philippines, told RadioFreeAsia.

"They tried to shoot at us," he said. "Three times they shot."

China's militarized fishing fleet 2
A photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard shows China's militarized fishing fleet anchored off Whitsun Reef in the Philippines on March 7, 2021. Photo Provided: Philippine Coast Guard

A press release published by the Republic of Philippines Department of National Defense expressed grave concern over the presence of the boats.

"This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area," Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary of National Defense, said in the statement. "We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory."

Chinese officials acknowledged the presence of the boats but claimed they were merely sheltering from rough weather, vehemently denying the existence of an armed fishing fleet.

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies showed that Chinese boats had been anchored around the reef since December — idle for more than three months.

"I think in many ways it was a practice run to see what the Philippines would do," Rockford Weitz, Director of the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University, told Newsweek.

Weitz identified the Whitsun Reef incident as arguable evidence of China's maritime militias beginning to recognize their potential, a threatening realization for the United States and South China Sea-facing countries.

"There was no hot conflict from it. But they had presence, they ignored orders. They established discomfort," Weitz said. "They essentially sent the message, 'We're here, and we have plenty of assets to be here permanently.'"

China has both the largest maritime militia and the largest commercial fishing fleet in the world. As the world's top seafood consumer, China has a legitimate reason to invest in its fishing vessels. Whether or not they are harvesting fish sustainably, they are helping to feed China.

Weitz noted that the commercial fishing fleets of the world, whether they're Chinese, Russian, American or Japanese, have the potential to become maritime militia forces. China was one of the first powers to weaponize their fishing industry, at scale, but it remains a global concern.

China has made a strategic effort to equip its fishing communities with state-of-the-art ships and equipment, and possibly arms, creating a "motivated and organized fleet of civilian vessels able to both claim marine resources and also occupy contested waters," Jay Batongbacal, associate professor and Director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, told RadioFreeAsia.

Batongbacal explained that because China has essentially depleted all of its own coastal fisheries, the Chinese government has invested significantly in its fishing fleet. Financial support was provided to modernize the vessels, supplying them with radio equipment, fishing equipment and GPS transponders in an effort to ensure the boats are able to fish further away from their own shore.

The strength of the fleet is its deniability. Because China denies the boats are military vessels, Chinese officials can feasibly equate any action against them by foreign navies or coast guards to an attack on Chinese civilians.

Using militarized fishing fleets to project maritime power far from the homeland has become a regular feature of Beijing's naval maneuvers — and fits in seamlessly with the BRI.

Chinese President Xi Jinping first established the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 as an expansive infrastructure project that would ultimately spread from East Asia to Europe. The initiative now encompasses more than 70% of the world's nations, substantially amplifying China's economic and political influence.

The South China Sea, teeming with rich natural resources and fishing areas, has been a sought-after region for more than half a century. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have competing territorial claims in the area, while China holds that the vast majority of the water mass is within its sovereignty.

China's militarized fishing fleet
Satellite photo of Chinese militarized fishing fleet anchored off Whitsun Reef in the Philippines on March 23, 2021. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

China has claimed sovereignty over roughly 90% of the South China Sea, citing the country's "nine-dash line," a creation of the Chinese government that infringes upon the maritime rights of several exclusive economic zones.

Adopted in 1949 by the People's Republic of China, the nine-dash line is a boundary line allegedly representing the maximum scope of the country's historical claims in the South China Sea.

Despite a 2016 landmark Hague ruling that China's jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis, it appears that China's expansion efforts have yet to be threatened. Beijing effectively ignores the ruling, continuing to claim almost all of the Sea as its territory.

But China's claims to 90% control of one of the richest fishing oceans continue to aggravate and intensify regional tensions, while ignoring an international maritime agreement of which Beijing is a party.

The treaty, as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), establishes an international framework to thoroughly evaluate such claims.

UNCLOS entered into force in the mid-1990s, serving as a comprehensive agreement clarifying jurisdiction in the waters surrounding coastal states. The convention, legally binding on states party to it, has been ratified by 168 nations, including China.

Coastal states have a right to both regulate and exploit areas of the ocean falling within their jurisdiction, a right that does not override other states' right to freedom of navigation and access to certain resources. In an effort to balance these rights, UNCLOS allows for the establishment of maritime zones by coastal states. Jurisdictional rights are then based upon the location of the given zone.

UNCLOS has drawn maritime zones using a baseline, or low-water line, to account for the rise and fall of coastal waters. Generally speaking, states have fewer rights over zones that are further away from the coastline. Maritime zones recognized under international law consist of internal waters, territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf and the high seas and deep ocean floors.

Internal waters are those that fall inland of the baseline, such as lakes and rivers. States have sovereign jurisdiction over internal waters, and there is no right to innocent passage through these waters.

The territorial sea comprises everything from the baseline to no more than 12 nautical miles beyond it. Coastal states have jurisdiction and sovereignty over this zone, with rights extending downward to the seabed and subsoil and upward to airspace. These rights are limited, however, by other states' right to innocent passage through territorial seas.

The contiguous zone extends from the outer edge of the territorial sea to no more than 24 nautical miles from the baseline. By ensuring that criminals cannot liberally flee the territorial sea, this zone is intended to strengthen a state's law enforcement potential. Jurisdiction is granted only on the ocean surface and floor.

Coastal states can claim an exclusive economic zone, an area of water extending no more than 200 nautical miles from the baseline. This zone grants states the exclusive right to control resources found within the water, on the seafloor, or under the sea floor's subsoil. It does not allow for states to limit freedom of navigation.

The continental shelf is an innate seaward extension consisting of only the seabed and subsoil. Coastal states have the sovereign right to both explore and exploit the waters in this zone, extending 200 nautical miles from the baseline or to the continental margin, whichever is further.

The high sea is identified as the ocean surface and water column beyond an exclusive economic zone. The seabed beyond an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf is referred to as the Area. As long as the purpose is peaceful, states are permitted to conduct activity in the Area, identified by UNCLOS as the common heritage of mankind. Fishing in the high seas is not limited, but the convention encourages regional conservation efforts in this zone.

China's militarized fishing fleets continue to operate in contravention of this agreement.

Effectively countering China's maritime dominance in the South China Sea will likely require a joint response. In an effort to advance such an undertaking, Indonesia's Maritime Security Agency has invited counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam— the six South China Sea-facing countries — to meet in February to discuss a more coordinated approach.

Beyond establishing dominance and control of contested waters and valuable fishing grounds, the militarized Chinese fishing fleets also represent a serious security threat to the nations whose waters they choose to target.

"If a Chinese fishing vessel is sailing around, whether they're fishing off the coast of California or off the coast of Ecuador or off the coast of Argentina," Weitz told Newsweek, "they can be gathering a bunch of information, signal intelligence and radioing it back to headquarters."

Satellite view China militarized fishing fleet
A satellite view of China's militarized fishing fleet anchored off Whitsun Reef in the Philippines on March 7, 2021. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologiesa