China's fishermen charge enemy
lines By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Media headlines containing the
term "Chinese fishing boats" and their crew are
popping up at ever-shorter intervals. In waters in
which China has sovereignty disputes, they have
rammed foreign patrol boats, stabbed to death a
coast guard official and challenged navy gunboats.
According to Beijing's narrative, these
daring men simply eke out their living where they
are supposed to. However, China's neighbors see
the fishermen's actions as low-intensity warfare.
For a long time after the Chinese civil
war in the late 1940s, fishing boats operating
from China's shores were assigned bizarre roles in
the political realm. After their retreat to Taiwan
in 1949, Kuomintang (KMT) forces rounded them up
and loaded them onto
huge amphibious assault
ships, only to bombard them with anti-communist
propaganda and gifts before their release.
In the mid-1990s, when the People's
Liberation Army (PLA) prepared to invade Taiwan
once the island sought independence, China began
honing an "integrated dual-use national system",
which ensured that civilian resources of many
kinds could be rapidly mobilized to support
military operations in wartime.
swarms of fishing boats played a prominent role in
this system as they were destined to harass the
Taiwanese coastal defense forces in the opening
days of any conflict and subsequently to carry PLA
invasion forces to the island. That such tactics
were practiced in large-scale rehearsals became
evident in 2002 when Chinese state media reported
that several thousand small fishing vessels based
in Fujian and Zhejiang held sea-crossing drills.
But in recent years, the fishing boats
took on targets other than Taiwan. In September
2010, a Chinese trawler in disputed waters in the
East China Sea collided with Japanese Coast Guard
patrol boats, resulting in a major diplomatic
dispute between Beijing and Tokyo.
December 2011, a South Korean Coast Guard sergeant
was fatally stabbed by a Chinese fisherman during
a raid on trawlers in waters in the Yellow Sea,
where, according to Beijing, China and South Korea
had not yet agreed on the demarcation of Korea's
exclusive economic zone.
In early April,
eight Chinese fishing boats were detected by the
Philippine navy anchoring off the disputed
Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan
Island, in the South China Sea, leading to an
ongoing high-profile sovereignty standoff between
Beijing and Manila that is unprecedented in its
intensity. "They are [...] bringing in all these
fishing boats and all we can do is resort to
diplomacy," Philippine regional military spokesman
Major Loel Egos was recently quoted by Agence
France-Presse as saying.
Although an odd
tactic at first glance, the mobilization of
civilian assets is a plausible option Beijing can
use to enforce its claims on waters that are
believed to hold enormous reserves of oil and
natural gas. The Philippines is already having
international energy companies explore for oil and
gas deposits off its coast, and as soon as those
begun pumping, it was plain theft of China's
resources from Beijing's perspective.
China has the choice between relinquishing
its claims and open warfare, the latter option of
which possibly endangering China's economic
miracle; or it alternatively finds a way to scare
ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Petronas and their likes
away from the region for the time being.
By creating - and maintaining - tensions
with the help of fishing boats and semi-military
surveillance vessels, as opposed to employing PLA
Navy assets, Beijing makes Washington feel it does
not have an obligation to directly intervene,
while at the same time keeping the media focus on
the spots, which in turn does a fine job in
spooking would-be investors.
strategy of Beijing's is somewhat successful can
hardly be doubted: tensions between China and the
Philippines in the South China Sea's gas-rich Reed
Bank that erupted last year almost halted the work
in the area of Forum Energy, a unit of the
Philippines' Philex Petroleum Corp, and in late
April, amid the current stand-off, the Philippine
government again acknowledged that China's claims
might affect Forum Energy's operations.
Bringing the recent actions involving an
ever-greater number of Chinese fishing boats more
into this context is the matter that Manila is
expected to award exploration contracts in July
for 15 other oil and gas fields, two of which are
in areas contested by China.
But it is not
only for the role of a scarecrow that the fishing
boats come in handy; on the domestic political
front they are of good use to the Chinese
After the supposedly
accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in
Yugoslavia in 1999 by United States and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, the latest
Chinese state media has turned to portraying China
as the world's most besieged underdog, thereby
fanning nationalism and strengthening loyalty to
the leadership. And if the country's TV screens
are now bombarded with footage showing US-backed
rifle-waving Philippine marines rounding up
humbly-dressed Chinese fishermen against the
backdrop of a Philippine Navy gunboat, this effect
is certainly cemented.
"All the Chinese
fishermen involved are from the country's southern
Hainan province, and they are currently all safe
and emotionally stable," China's official news
agency Xinhua assured the public after
law-enforcement ships shielded the crews from the
Asked by Asia
Times Online, analysts agreed that the fishermen
have objectives other than catching fish.
"In order to enforce its claims, the
Chinese government has to take actions, such as
the dispatching those fishing boats to disputed
territorial waters, as well as their guarding,"
said Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China
Politics Division at Taiwan's National Chengchi
"Those fishermen may not be
militarily trained, but compensation from Chinese
authorities [for losses of boats, injuries,
detention by foreign countries, etc] will be
John F Copper, a professor of
international studies at Rhodes College in
Memphis, Tennessee, does not doubt that the men
are given concrete assignments by the Chinese
government, or at least are encouraged in their
"There is little chance they are
fishing in disputed waters or where they may
provoke Japan, South Korea or the Philippines on
their own," Copper said, adding that China wished
to display its economic and military clout,
especially to Japan, while the issues of sea lanes
and oil may be at play as well.
making claims to territory conforms with the
growth of Chinese nationalism, which the PLA has
been and is successfully using to its advantage."
Lai I-chung, a researcher at the Taiwan
Thinktank, agreed that the fishermen clearly had
military or paramilitary connections. He listed
"Every Chinese fishing
boat needs to report to authorities where it's
about to go before sailing out to sea," Lai said.
According to him, this explains why vessels
belonging to the PLA Navy or other official boats
were able to appear at the scene suspiciously
quickly in a number of incidents.
that in the 2010 East China Sea collision with
Japan's Coast Guard ships, the fishing boat
involved appeared to have carried equipment that
pointed to military use. He pointed out that China
had a long history of employing fishing boats and
disguising official ships as such while executing
low-intensity warfare missions.
"Basically, no ordinary Chinese fishermen
would sail into hotly-disputed waters knowing they
could lose all their earnings if they were not
sure that their government would definitely come
to their aid," Lai concluded.
Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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