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The boss of the sea
China's Muscular Civilian Fleet Threatens, Irritates Neighbors

From “harassing Filipino fishing boats” to “playing cat-and-mouse with the Japanese coastguard,” China’s fleet of civilian vessels does it all. In a remarkable story, Reuters details how citizen-owned fishing, exploration, and coastguard vessels coordinate their actions with the Navy, patrol disputed territory, harass foreign ships and occasionally attack them with water cannons and grappling hooks.

In just the most recent such incident, Chinese ships used water cannons to deter Filipino fishermen from an area claimed by both countries near the Scarborough Shoal. China blamed the whole thing on the Filipino fishermen. A foreign ministry spokesman said, heatedly, that the Filipinos appeared to just “hang around” in the disputed area and adopting a “provocative posture of appearing to spoil for a fight.” The Chinese vessels, by contrast, “maintained utmost restraint.”

As one Asian naval officer put it to Reuters, “What we are seeing now is the PLA Navy moving into broader areas of ocean and fine-tuning their operational training, including combat, leaving the civilian fleets to concentrate on the most sensitive areas. It is those fleets that represent the daily assertion of Chinese sovereignty in disputed areas—and we watch them like hawks as a result.”

China’s coastguard is strong and expanding so quickly it will soon challenge Japan’s, which is the largest and most technologically advanced in the region. Some of the coastguard ships are decommissioned naval vessels. A 10,000-tonne maritime surveillance ship, which is currently under construction, will be the largest in the world. Another one half that size will be stationed on an island in the South China Sea that is claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Last year, China’s various coast guard administration departments were unified under a more direct chain of command. Little is known about the unit at the top of that chain, the State Oceanic Administration, or its relationship with the Navy, notes a recent study by Japan’s National Institute of Defence Studies.

As the director of intelligence in the US Navy said recently, the Chinese Navy coordinates with the civilian coastguard on operations in the East and South China Seas. “This campaign is being meticulously coordinated from Beijing,” he said. While the larger Navy ships are occupied in the open ocean, the civilian coastguard and fishing vessels play the role of “antagonist” in and around island groups claimed by China and its neighbors. Those neighbors, except for Japan, are mostly too weak to fight back.

Little by little, using naval as well as civilian ships, China is reinforcing its claim on the South China Sea (some people call this the “cabbage strategy”). Coastguard patrols are regularly “apprehending” vessels in a part of the South China Sea that Beijing says is not open to foreigners. “First of all we would try to dissuade them, tell them to get out, this is our area, and then we negotiate and dissuade as much as possible,” an official in the Hainan government, which issued the new rule this year, said today. The “intruders,” mostly Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen accustomed to plying these waters unharassed, are dealt with by China’s patrol vessels that are based on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.

The South China Sea gets a little messier and a little more tense every day.

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  • Boommach

    Reset buttons…lots of reset buttons. Fix things right up…make everyone feel good.

  • Jim__L

    The most tragic part here is that fisheries worldwide are shrinking — these guys may be fighting for pieces of a smaller and smaller pie.

    Land agriculture has seen “green revolutions”, to keep Malthus at bay. Absent some application of scientific ingenuity and political self-control, Malthus is currently the favorite for victory at sea.

  • Boritz

    You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion. Some senior American foreign ministry type needs to emphasize this.

    • Andrew Allison

      I couldn’t disagree more. The evidence is all around us that 19th Century behavior is the winning strategy. How exactly, other than wringing its hands, do you suggest that the State Department make it clear that there’s a better way? US foreign policy for at least the past six years has done nothing but encourage 19th Century behavior on the part of our enemies

      • Pete

        I think Bortiz was being facetious …. at least I hope so

      • Jim__L

        It’s because of politically correct “education” and culture.

        You wouldn’t believe the number of people I’ve met in since 2000 who reacted to my analysis that China was pursuing Mercantilist policies with something resembling, “China couldn’t possibly be Mercantilist, because it was a victim of Mercantilism”, or, “Mercantilism has been discredited”. I’m not kidding. People have come around more nowadays, but fifteen years ago it just didn’t enter their heads. China discovered that the old rules still work.

        Same thing with military aggression today. Nations are discovering that to some extent it can work. The 19th century rules didn’t go away, they were just ignored by mutual consent.

        The US was so successful during the Cold War that we developed the arrogant belief that we could make the rules. This is a dangerous illusion. Humanity cannot make rules, aside from the weakest and most transient.

        Prosperity and success is simple: Rules must be discovered. Then those rules must be followed — made to work in your favor. They must not be pushed beyond the natural constraints that other rules impose on them.

        Some rules are more prone to those natural constraints than others. But rules can’t be broken. Someone who thinks they have broken a rule was either mistaken about its being a rule, or hasn’t realized what kind of consequences the rule is going to impose farther down the line.

        People who think they “make their own rules” are delusional. They have either (rarely) discovered rules that others haven’t, or (more likely) are willfully blinding themselves.

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