Tue, May 03, 2016 - Page 6 News List

ANALYSIS: Chinese ‘fishing militia’ trained for S China Sea

MILITARIZATION:The Chinese government is providing basic military training to fishermen in the South China Sea, and some of the vessels reportedly carry small arms

Reuters, BAIMAJING, China

Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin participates in a press briefing at the 11th ASEAN-China senior officials meeting at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore on Thursday to discuss topics including territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Photo: EPA

The fishing fleet based in the tiny port town on China’s Hainan Island is getting everything from military training and subsidies to even fuel and ice as China creates an increasingly sophisticated fishing militia to sail into the disputed South China Sea.

The training and support includes exercises at sea and requests to fishermen to gather information on foreign vessels, provincial government officials, regional diplomats and fishing company executives said in recent interviews.

“The maritime militia is expanding because of the country’s need for it, and because of the desire of the fishermen to engage in national service, protecting our country’s interests,” said an adviser to the Hainan government who did not want to be named.

However, the fishing militia also raises the risk of conflict with foreign navies in the strategic waterway through which US$5 trillion of trade passes each year, diplomats and naval experts say.

The US has been conducting sea and air patrols near artificial islands China is building in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November last year.

Washington in February said it would increase the “freedom of navigation” sail-bys around the disputed sea.

BASIC TRAINING

The city-level branches of the People’s Armed Forces Department provide basic military training to fishermen, the Hainan government adviser said.

The branches are overseen by both the military and local communist Party authorities in charge of militia operations nationwide.

The training encompasses search and rescue operations, contending with disasters at sea, and “safeguarding Chinese sovereignty,” said the adviser, who focuses on the South China Sea.

The training, which includes exercises at sea, takes place between May and August and the government pays fishermen for participating, he said.

Government subsidies encourage fishermen to use heavier vessels with steel — as opposed to wooden — hulls.

The government has also provided GPS equipment for at least 50,000 vessels, enabling them to contact the Chinese Coast Guard in maritime emergencies, including encounters with foreign ships, industry executives said.

Several Hainan fishermen and diplomats said some vessels have small arms.

When “a particular mission in safeguarding sovereignty,” comes up government authorities will coordinate with the fishing militia, the adviser said, asking them to gather information on the activities of foreign vessels at sea.

INDONESIA ROW

That coordination was evident in March, when Indonesia attempted to detain a Chinese fishing vessel for fishing near its Natuna Islands (納土納) in the South China Sea. A Chinese coast guard vessel quickly intervened to prevent the Indonesian Navy from towing away the fishing boat, setting off a diplomatic row.

Beijing does not claim the Natunas, but said the boats were in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”

China claims almost all of the South China Sea. Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also have conflicting claims over the islets and atolls that constitute the Spratly Archipelago and its rich fishing grounds.

State-controlled fishing companies dominate the fleets that go regularly to the Spratly Islands and are recipients of much of the militia training and subsidies, industry sources said.

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