South China Sea has become embroiled in disagreements for various reasons. To appreciate the extent of the dispute, it is essential to examine the South China Sea, which is a large division of water, that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square km. Its strategic importance can be gauged from the fact that one-third of the world’s shipping passes through it, carrying over $3 trillion in trade each year. The body of water contains lucrative fisheries, which are crucial for the food security of millions of souls in Southeast Asia. Reportedly, there are huge oil and gas reserves believed to lie beneath its seabed. According to studies made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines, the South China Sea holds one-third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity, thereby making it a very important area for the ecosystem.
Several sovereign states in the region are involved in the South China Sea disputes. Both maritime and island claims are part of the disagreement among Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. For China, the importance of the marginal sea stems from the fact that 80 percent of China’s energy imports and 39.5 percent of China’s total trade passes through the South China Sea.
Various islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin are part of the dispute. There are further areas of disagreement, which include the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands, which many do not regard as part of the South China Sea. Claimant states in the disputes vie for retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing stocks, the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important sea lines of communication.
China has proposed that all disputes be resolved bilaterally and has concluded agreements with some of its neighbours. Two of the allies of the US, Japan and Philippines being party to the dispute and Taiwan, which is part of Mainland China but enjoys freedom due to US sponsorship, prompted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call for China to resolve the territorial dispute in July 2010. China responded by demanding the US to keep out of the issue. Washington DC, however, has not abided by Beijing’s warning and continues to interject in the dispute. The US, although not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has maintained its position that its naval vessels have consistently sailed unhindered through the South China Sea and will continue to do so. At times US warships have come within the 12 nautical-mile limit of Chinese-controlled islands (such as the Paracel Islands), causing consternation to China.
In the recent past, US President Donald Trump has urged the parties to the dispute to up the ante to pressurize China. India, which is not a littoral state to the South China Sea, has also been pumped to jump into the fray.
Two aircraft carriers of the US Navy, the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan along with their accompanying vessels and aircraft are currently deployed in the South China Sea. According to the US Navy, the Carrier Group is conducting exercises “designed to maximize air defence capabilities and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations.”
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, when queried on the subject, said that the exercises were performed “totally out of ulterior motives” and undermined stability in the area. Zhao added that “Against such a backdrop, the US deliberately dispatched massive forces to conduct large-scale military exercises in the relevant waters of the South China Sea to flex its military muscle”.
While China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a matching operational status to meet any threat, China’s detractors should beware that the People’s Liberation Army, which defeated the imperialist Japanese forces and later drove out the much larger, better equipped Kuomintang, which was being morally and materially supported by the Occident, can deal with any threat through unconventional means too.
In this milieu, it would be worthwhile to examine China’s “Fishing Pole Diplomacy”. According to Reuters and other sources, for the last many years, over 50,000 Chinese fishing boats are deployed in the South China Sea. These sources name the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) comprising a fleet of militarized fishing vessels as the front-line force.
In March 2019, U.S. Naval War College professors Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson and reporter Dmitry Filipoff from the Centre for International Maritime Security carried out in-depth discussions on the subject and published “China’s Maritime Grey Zone Operations (Studies in Chinese Maritime Development).” They disclose that the Sansha City Maritime Militia, headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracels, is the model for a professional militia force. It is outfitted with seven dozen large new ships that resemble fishing trawlers but are actually purpose-built for grey zone operations. Lacking fishing responsibilities, personnel train for manifold peacetime and wartime contingencies, including with light arms, and deploy regularly to disputed South China Sea areas, even during fishing moratoriums. The US Navy experts opine that there are no solid numbers publicly available on the size of China’s maritime militia, but it is clearly the world’s largest fishing fleet.
David Axe, writing for the “National Interest”, in his opinion piece ‘China’s Secret Weapon to Control Its Near Seas: Enter the Maritime Militia’, informs that the PAFMM boats usually are unarmed. “They assert Chinese prerogatives through the employment of a range of nonlethal tactics. In many cases, Chinese grey-zone ships are themselves the weapon: they bump, ram and physically obstruct the moments of other vessels. They also employ powerful water cannons to damage sensitive equipment aboard foreign ships and flood their powerplants.”
Reportedly the fishing boats are equipped with China’s homegrown Beidou satellite system for communication. Under these circumstances, China’s “Fishing Pole Diplomacy” can be interpreted as the means to supplement its traditional and conventional maritime defence system with the mammoth fleet of fishing boats, that can be transformed into offensive weapon systems, should the need arise.
While the world is struggling to combat the scourge of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and China is leading the research to develop a vaccine and cure for the pandemic, any unnecessary conflict should be avoided. China has expressed on various international forums that it has no hegemonic designs and seeks peace. Credibility should be extended to it so that all issues are settled diplomatically.