China is using a big team of maritime militia posing as fishermen to expand its control around disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, causing concern among countries in the region, a news report says.
As many as 220 Chinese fishing boats were last month anchored around Whitsun Reef, a Philippine possession in the Spratly Islands chain, United States broadcaster CNN reported.
Manila authorities said the grouping was in fact a militia deployment and filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing, which in turn insisted that those were merely fishing vessels that had taken refuge in the area because of bad weather.
The Chinese embassy in Manila went further, denying the alleged presence of an unofficial navy. “China has no maritime militia,” it said.
Beijing apparently has an oceanic force dubbed “Little Blue Men,” which it has never formally acknowledged but is growing by the day, according to the CNN report.
The force is named after the color of its boat hulls.
These people did not fish, said Carl Scchuster, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. Their vessels were sturdily built with reinforced hulls, and equipped with automatic weapons aboard. They were faster than 90% of fishing boats around the world, he said.
In a report last December, the U.S. military said that the Beijing authorities were making use of this maritime militia to operate in gray areas, subvert other nations’ sovereignty and broaden China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea.
The militia was organized, developed and controlled by Beijing, said Andrew Erickson, a professor from the U.S. Naval War College.
It functioned directly under the military command system to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities, and could also lead the fishing fleet to execute missions, Erickson said. He estimated that China had around 187,000 fishing boats, of which an unknown number were armed.
The recent strong turnout of Chinese militia vessels in the South China Sea signaled that their numbers were greater than previously thought, the professor added. In its 2020 national defense report, the U.S. had mentioned 84 Chinese militia boats were in operation.
From a strategic perspective, maritime militias could be highly and easily mobilized with lower capital costs than warships, said Shuxian Luo from Johns Hopkins University and Jonathan Panter of Columbia University.
A maritime militia could be activated to interfere with enemy forces and harass them if a confrontation broke out at sea, they said. The U.S. could deploy a destroyer to fend them off.
However, combating the militia was not without risks. Beijing could claim the vessels were not warships, so any action taken by foreign governments might be seen as attacks on Chinese civilians, experts said. In this way, China could deter weaker countries in the South China Sea from expelling the vessels.
Experts warned that the more useful the Little Blue Men were, the more China’s authorities would deploy them to different water zones, posing a risk of real conflict in the region.
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