This picture, taken on May 14 from a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship, shows a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, left, sailing near China's oil drilling rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Vietnam was experiencing its worst anti-China unrest in decades following Beijing's deployment of an oil rig to disputed waters, with at least one Chinese worker killed and more than 100 injured. (Hoang Dinh Nam / Getty Images)
TAIPEI — China’s use of swarming tactics with fishing vessels to project and protect Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea appears unstoppable, experts say.
The latest example in May was the placement of a Chinese oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which was protected by more than 70 maritime security and fishing vessels.
“Fishing vessels are wonderful tools for autocratic governments where business and industry are under their control,” said Sam Tangredi, author of the book, “Anti-Access Warfare.”
Sending them in swarms to circle a disputed area of contention or create a barrier to prevent access by other navy or coast guard vessels does not create negative media images like harassment by warships, he said. “It may be made to appear like a spontaneous peaceful protest caused by popular nationalist fervor … almost like ‘nonviolent resistance,’ as if Gandhi was a fisherman.”
Dean Cheng, a China military specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said it places Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and the US Navy in a difficult position. How do you handle nominally civilian bystanders? Using force costs you political support worldwide, as you, the opponent, are then seen as escalating the crisis by attacking civilians. Not doing anything may mean ceding sovereignty and losing administrative control.
“A fundamental aspect of Chinese strategy is creating these unpalatable choices of ‘heads I win, tails you lose,’ to induce the opposition to withdraw, in order to avoid being forced to confront such choices — which effectively means a Chinese win,” he said.
Vietnam learned that lesson when it challenged the rig placement with its own maritime security and fishing vessels. Overwhelmed and uncoordinated, the Vietnamese had little chance against experienced fishermen. That was made clear on May 27 when a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat.
China’s use of fishing vessels goes back to the 1990s, when Chinese fishing vessels would swarm Taiwan’s outer islands of Matsu and Jinmen during political tension.
China ramped up the use of fishing vessels as a form of intimidation shortly after the presidential election of its first opposition party leader, Chen Shui-bian, in 2000. At the time, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) reported that about 1,000 fishing vessels had encircled the military-controlled Pratas Islets in the South China Sea. The MND also confirmed that 250 fishing vessels had converged on the military-controlled Tungyin Island, north of Matsu, near mainland China. The vessels were described as in the 100-ton range with steel hulls and engaged in “extremely regular formation.”
Taiwan continued to have problems with Chinese fishing vessels with several abductions of Taiwan Coast Guard personnel, who were held for ransom in China, and the ramming of Coast Guard vessels well within Taiwan’s exclusive economic zone. However, harassment ended with the presidential election of Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Chinese Party in 2008 and the bettering of cross-Strait relations.
During this period of harassment, China used fishing vessels to spy on Taiwan’s coastline. In 1999, a Chinese fishing vessel was intercepted off Hsinchu County and among its crew was a mainland researcher using the vessel to conduct geographic surveys. In 2000, four crew members of a Chinese fishing vessel were arrested near the Zengwun River estuary. The boat was outfitted with surveillance equipment, and the men identified themselves as officers of China’s Ministry of State Security.
Cheng said China’s vast fishing fleet is a great way to obtain intelligence cheaply. With the new Beidou navigation satellite system and the use of radios, China can blanket a large area with persistent coverage.
“Moreover, you can’t jam ‘Mark 1 eyeballs’ [visual inspection], and you might not want to jam commercial communications frequencies, if there are other, non-Chinese operating on those,” he said.
There is also the possibility that thousands of Chinese fishing vessels are equipped with sonar, Cheng said. “Is there an anti-submarine picket role that they might play in the future? Killing fishing boats would, again, pose political issues for a submarine crew, but also creates questions of how many fishing boats will you spend torpedoes on, given the limited number you carry?”
Tangredi said Beijing was smart in using fishing vessels to preform “mini-blockades.” If a fishing boat sinks during an altercation with a military vessel, the media will most likely see the unarmed fishing vessel as the victim. “The small fishing vessel — just trying to catch fish — a warship is sophisticated with a large crew ... surely they would have seen and avoided the fishing vessel, with their big powerful engines.”
The US Navy’s first experience with the tactic was in 2009 when survey vessels Victorious and Impeccable were harassed by a mix of Chinese fishing boats and maritime security vessels near Hainan Island.
“The Chinese, at least in past incidents involving the USNS vessels, chose to keep their Navy ships just over the horizon, relying on the civilian boats and the like to do the interfering,” Cheng said. “This limits escalatory potential, and chances of bad video of Chinese naval participation ... while keeping a more forceful option at hand.”
When will China launch its next harassment operation against the US Navy? Many point to the East China Sea, where China imposed an air defense identification zone in 2013 and stepped up claims over the Diaoyu Islands, claimed and controlled by Japan as the Senkakus. ■