Chinese ‘fishing militias’ emerge as biggest threat to US Navy warships operating in South China Sea

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Originally published by The EurAsian Times

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Editor’s Note: This piece by Parth Satam features quotes from CSP Senior Fellow, Grant Newsham.

The emergence of images of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea (SCS) days after China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels used water cannons on Philippine ship hints that China’s controversial maritime militia might play a role if a conflict erupts between Beijing and Manila and the US-led coalition.

The US, Australia, and Japan recently announced exercises in the SCS following the August 5 incident where six CCG ships and the fishing militia – often operating as China’s quasi-military and undeclared maritime border management arm – blocked two Philippine Navy-chartered civilian vessels. The civilian ships took supplies to the Philippine forces stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal.

Images posted on X (formerly Twitter) on August 16 showed a massive swarm of fishing vessels, possibly numbering several hundred, in the SCS sailing around a group of small islands. Academics and China watchers have long studied the maritime militia and have also been used in previous disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over contested territory.

Meanwhile, the drills by Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra will include helicopter carriers and three aircraft sailing in a display of force and taking on joint exercises. The US plans to deploy an aircraft carrier dubbed the USS America, while Japan would send one of the largest warships, a helicopter carrier titled JS Izumo.

Retired US Marine Corps officer and Asia Pacific defense expert, Col. Grant Newsham, says the boats “swarm” targets in the gray zone and make it “very difficult” for foreign coast guards and navies to operate in their own territories.

The 2016 Senkaku incident with Japan demonstrates how the fishing fleet/maritime militias are “clearly a part of China’s broader military force,” according to Newsham. “They have operational, psychological, and political importance. In Japan’s case, they sent a message that ‘China can assert administrative control of the area anytime it wants, and there is nothing Japan can do about it,’” Newsham said while speaking to the EurAsian Times.

Newsham’s assessment suggests that the Chinese have ambitious fishing fleet plans. “Maritime militias are the ‘muscle’ that operate with or around regular fishing boats and also with the CCG and as an augment to the PLAN. These boats can attack, ram, or sink just about any other fishing boat and even take on local coast guard ships.

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