The Philippines win back the South China Sea initiative. In an apparent political shift, it has begun to exchange unprecedented amounts of information about Chinese actions on the Spratly Islands, the archipelago of controversial rocks and reefs off the west coast of the Philippines. While Manila’s exact motives are unclear, his newfound transparency creates fascinating new ways to understand Beijing’s maritime strategy. This is especially true of China’s fleet of Spratly fishing vessels, some of which operate under the command of the Chinese military – units of the People’s Army Maritime Militia (PAFMM). This sub-component of the Chinese armed forces, which may number thousands of ships and tens of thousands of employees, is trained and equipped to assist the People’s Liberation Army in promoting sovereignty claims to disputed features and sea areas.
Last week the Philippine Coast Guard released pictures of Chinese fishing vessels moored at the Spratly Peonies, taken by the crew of the BRP Cabra, a Coast Guard ship approaching Chinese vessels. Gone are the hundreds of boats seen in March. What remains is a small number of Chinese fishing vessels, six of which are tied together in the lagoon.
One important point: The new photos and a video to accompany them show that the ships that were seen last week were the same six boats that the Cabra had observed on its last patrol over two weeks ago. Real fishing vessels can’t afford to linger in a single place like this for weeks, especially when the weather is perfect for fishing elsewhere. Since the captains of these boats are clearly indifferent to the economic costs of inactivity, their protracted presence at Pentecost can mean only one thing: it is their job to be there. Yes, China sometimes pays ordinary fishermen to dwell in controversial spaces, but given the intense spotlight on Whitsun, it seems far more likely that it has turned to the pros. They are undoubtedly members of the PAFMM.
This is an interesting but not unexpected finding. Despite implausible refusals from the official spokesmen for the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in Manila, we previously uncovered evidence of the militia presence on the reef, and the Philippines have been calling them militia all along. However, this confirmation allows for a host of new insights into the organization of the militia and the patterns of militia activity in the Spratly waters. What could be learned
Initially, all six ships are registered in Guangdong Province. We know this from their body markings, which begin with the character yue (粤), the common Chinese abbreviation for Guangdong, China’s prosperous southern province. This is noteworthy in that, unlike those from Hainan or even Guangxi, members of the Guangdong militia are not usually recognized as key players in the South China Sea. That assumption has to change.
In retrospect, the indicators were clear enough. President Xi Jinping’s era has been a blessing for the PAFMM. In November 2013, just seven months after Xi’s famous visit to Hainan’s Tanmen Maritime Militia to pay homage to the unit for its role in China’s conquest of Scarborough Shoal, Guangdong Military District Commander Major General Gai Longyun paid a visit to Taishan City. to forward the new focus from the center. Gai said, “The sea battle is becoming more and more urgent.” So he continued: “The state is looking for ways to strengthen the construction of departments of the maritime militia.”
Within a few months, the Guangdong Military District began implementing national decisions on the use of “mobilizing forces” (such as militias) in “combat” at sea. According to the 2015 Guangdong Yearbook, Chinese doctrine now called for the PAFMM forces to be “front line” in China’s campaign to exercise influence and control in the disputed area. Behind it, China’s other two naval forces, the coast guard and the navy, would operate on the “second” and “third” lines. This multi-layered approach, which saw its greatest success at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, is sometimes referred to as China’s “cabbage” strategy because of its multi-layered leaves. As the Pentecost demonstrates, this approach is alive and well.
The hull markings are even brighter. Take only two of the six, Yuexinhuiyu 60138 and Yuexinhuiyu 60139 (as seen in the photo accompanying this article). The second and third characters (xin hui, 新 会) indicate that they are registered in the Xinhui District, Guangdong’s Jiangmen City. (The last character yu, 渔, fish, classifies them as fishing vessels.)
The two Xinhui boats are equipped with transceivers with an automatic identification system so that their movements can be tracked at least temporarily. Commercially available tracking platforms connect them to the Yamen Fishing Port in Xinhui District. It is located on the Yamen Canal, right on the Macau coast. Satellite photos show two large wharves on the west bank of the canal. This is their home. Just up the canal, on the east bank, is a Chinese naval base with docks that house frigates and missile boats.
Chinese fishing records confirm what the photos show that Yuexinhuiyu 60138 and 60139 are both trawlers. They are designed to pull nets at slow speeds (under 5 knots) and capture everything in their path in the hopes that some of it will be commercially valuable. With a length of around 30 meters, they are large ships – the result of Beijing’s request to Chinese fishermen to “build large boats”, an endeavor that Xi first expressed in April 2013 and later politically determined.
Xinhui’s fishing fleet includes over 500 boats. Most are small ships that operate near the Chinese coast, very far from the trouble spots of the South China Sea. In 2019, only six Xinhui boats sailed in the “designated waters” of the South China Sea, a euphemistic name for the Spratlys.
Tracking information shows that when the two ships left Yamen port for the Spratlys on February 24th, they were accompanied by another of Xinhui’s six Spratly boats: Yuexinhuiyu 60136. Information obtained from the Philippine Coast Guard have received, indicate that this ship is also present on Pentecost. It is a large purse seine catcher that sets up its nets around a school of fish and then slowly pulls them in.
If 2021 is like 2019, then Yuexinhuiyu 60138 and 60139 will make three or four trips to the Spratlys this year. Each will spend a total of around 280 days in these waters. Its owner – Deng Fengjuan – will receive millions of yuan to offset fuel costs, about half a million dollars. This shows that those associated with the maritime militia, like supposedly ordinary Spratly fishermen, are benefiting from very generous government subsidies to encourage Chinese fishing activities in these waters.
Xinhui District has supported the PAFMM armed forces for at least two decades. The Chinese media regularly review their activities. For example, in June 2002, the local military bureau responsible for establishing the militia, known as the People’s Armed Forces Division, took a section of the Xinhui Militia to Guanghai, Taishan Prefecture, for a month at sea. By 2004, Xinhui had established a maritime militia specializing in “breaking through barriers,” presumably a war function.
2014 brought the Xinhui Department into the national spotlight. In December this year, the military media broadcaster PLA Daily released images showing how Xinhui’s PAFMM department received “tactical training” (ie with firearms) on board a fishing vessel. That year, the Xinhui District People’s Forces organized three such exercises on the water. Her training focused on the use of reconnaissance and communication equipment and familiarity with contingency plans.
By 2016, Xinhui District had set up a PAFMM “Distant Seas” department – a crucial milestone in its development as an agent for enforcement of sovereignty. In the jargon of militia work in the South China Sea, the “distant sea” refers to the Spratly waters. Since Xinhui only has six Spratly boats, most if not all of them belong to the Far Sea Militia Division. This of course includes Yuexinhuiyu 60138 and 60139.
From these two ships alone, we get valuable new information about PAFMM activities in the South China Sea: their operating patterns (including frequency and duration of operations), government support for Spratly operations (large fuel subsidies), and the main PAFMM units operating in the contested area (Jiangmen’s Xinhui District). The other four Guangdong ships tied up at Whitsun will also have their stories and offer even more insights into the organization and operation of PAFMM. Indeed, the story of every member of the Chinese Spratly fishing fleet, militia or otherwise, tells something about Beijing’s strategy for the South China Sea – and thanks to the Philippine government, outsiders can start reading these stories.
In summary, we have now identified some of the most visible ships that were lashed on Whitsuntide. Coupled with our previous reveal of seven PAFMM ships that visited the controversial South China Sea last month, it shows that Beijing’s Pentecost public news can be refuted with open source alone. However, these ships and their activities are only a small part of China’s gray area operations that the United States and its allies must more effectively track and publicize in real time in order to stay ahead of Beijing’s relentless efforts for below-the-radar profits. Continuous analysis of Xinhui and other locations is imperative and disclosure of information by the US, Philippines and other governments is urgent. The Pentagon advisor Ely Ratner, who as a scientist has spoken out convincingly in favor of greater publication of information from the South China Sea by the US government, is now particularly well placed to apply these sensible recommendations in the Biden government.