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Equipped with “BeiDou” satellite navigation system, China’s maritime militia pose greater threat

  • June 1, 2021
  • , Wedge , p. 25
  • JMH Translation

By Yatsuzuka Masaaki, Research Fellow, National Institute for Defense Studies, Ministry of Defense


In addition to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the China Coast Guard, the “maritime militia” are also part of China’s framework to promote its maritime expansion. Members of the maritime militia are usually engaged in the fishing industry as fishermen or port officials, but they also are involved in various activities to protect [China’s] maritime interests, receiving instructions from the Chinese military and government.


China’s National Defense Law positions the maritime militia as part of the armed forces and stipulates that they have various missions, including making preparations for war and conducting non-war military activities and defense operations during wartime. Even in peacetime, the maritime militia participate in exercises and military drills during closed fishing seasons and assert Chinese interests by fishing in disputed territorial waters. The maritime militia are now being organized in China’s coastal waters.


The maritime militia have long played a role in China’s maritime expansion in various ways. For example, during the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands when China usurped the effective control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, the maritime militia supported the PLA Navy in information operations and landing operations. In recent years as well, Chinese fishing boats have repeatedly blocked the navigation of U.S. Navy ships and intimidated neighboring countries’ fishing vessels in the South China Sea, and the maritime militia are suspected of being involved in these initiatives.


In August 2016, a group of Chinese fishing vessels appeared in Japan’s territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. It is unclear whether the vessels were maritime militia, but we should remember that right before the incident Chang Wanquan, national defense minister at the time, inspected the maritime militia of Zhejiang Province, which in on the East China Sea.


Use of the maritime militia is of concern because it would mean that conflicts in disputed territorial waters would unfold at China’s pace. The maritime militia act in concert with the PLA Navy and the China Coast Guard. According to international law, nations are to distinguish militia from average citizens. Looking from the outside, though, it is hard to distinguish which vessels are mere fishing boats and which are maritime militia. For this reason, a country using maritime militia can seize the initiative in conflicts by putting the burden on the enemy to determine which vessels are military militia in times of crisis and thereby weaken the enemy’s ability to respond.


Enhance control of fishing boats by forbidding them to turn off BDS


In recent years, the maritime militia have been equipped with Chinese technology and assigned more advanced activities and functions. China has equipped the maritime militia with the BeiDou satellite navigation system (BDS), which is considered China’s Global Positioning System (GPS), and thereby raised the efficiency of the maritime militia and enhanced their coordination with the PLA Navy and the China Coast Guard. In the past, China has depended on the GPS of the United States, but China pushed forward with the development of its own satellite system, concerned that the GPS would be suspended during wartime. The result was the BDS. At the end of 2018, BDS started offering services that cover the entire world. It is said that 70,000 Chinese fishing boats, China Coast Guard vessels, and other law enforcement boats are already equipped with BDS terminals, thanks to assistance from local governments.


The equipping of Chinese fishing boats with BDS will make the maritime militia more organized and more active and boost their coordination with the PLA Navy and China Coast Guard. BDS supports fishing vessels in navigation, and it assists authorities in the management and supervision of fisheries policies and the control of fishing boats’ entry and departure from ports. In addition, BDS has a messaging function (with the most recent version of BDS supporting texts of about 1,200 characters in length). These functions are gradually becoming instrumental in China’s maritime expansion.


Take the example of rescue-at-sea operations. It is said that over 10,000 people have been rescued by vessels equipped with BDS. Moreover, BDS is being actively used to manage fishing boats. In Hainan Province, whose jurisdiction covers most of the South China Sea, fishing vessels equipped with BDS terminals are forbidden to turn off their BDS functions without permission during the closed fishing season, and fines of 5,000 yuan (slightly over 80,000 yen) per vessel are levied for vessels found in violation.


BDS is also useful in activities to assert China’s maritime rights and interests. The satellite system is likely being used to assert China’s rights and to intimidate foreign ships through the operations of fishing vessels in disputed territorial waters. It is also probably being put to work to ascertain the position of PLA Navy, China Coast Guard, and fishing vessels as well as to issue instructions to the vessels using the messaging function.


The international community has gradually been growing more vigilant of China’s use of its maritime militia. For example, the joint statement of the 2020 Japan-U.S.-Australia Defense Ministers’ Meeting as well as that of the 2020 Japan-Australia Summit Meeting both express “serious concern” about China’s dangerous or coercive use of its maritime militia. In March 2021, some 220 Chinese fishing vessels were seen moored side by side at a coral reef within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. In response, the Philippine Defense Minister expressed his concern, making reference to China’s maritime militia.


The international community, however, has yet to adequately discuss the actual state of China’s maritime militia and the danger it poses and has not dissuaded China from using maritime militia. Japan needs to call for international discussions on China’s maritime militia.


Profile of Yatsuzuka Masaaki

Yatsuzuka earned an M.A. from the Keio University Graduate School of Law. He was researcher at the Consulate General of Japan in Hong Kong and served as Deputy Director of the International Policy Division, Bureau of Defense Policy, Ministry of Defense before becoming a Research Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in 2016.

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