Chinese Civilian Boats Roil Disputed Waters
By EDWARD WONG
Published: October 5, 2010
The diplomatic discord set off by Japan’s recent detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain points to what
foreign military officials say is a growing source of friction along China’s borders: civilian vessels plying
disputed waters — and sometimes acting as proxies for the Chinese Navy.
Chinese fishing boats were berthed last month in the coastal town of Jinjiang, in southeastern Fujian Province.
A Japanese Coast Guard vessel and a Chinese fisheries patrol ship, near islands that both countries claim.
The number of Chinese civilian boats operating in disputed territory and that of the run-ins they have with
foreign vessels, including warships, are on the rise, American and Asian officials say.
The boats often have no obvious military connections, and none have been discovered for the trawler the
Japanese detained. But foreign officials and analysts say there is evidence showing that they sometimes
coordinate their activities with the Chinese Navy. China’s navy is seeking to expand a maritime militia of
fishing vessels and to enhance its control over civilian agencies that regulate activities in coastal waters.
The result is an increasingly volatile situation in waters around China, especially in the contested East and
South China Seas. Foreign military officials are now wary of a wide range of Chinese maritime vessels.
American officials and a Pentagon report from 2009 warn of potential hostilities with Chinese civilian vessels,
based in part on two separate incidents last year in which American warships had tense encounters with
The Chinese Navy is determined to create a long-range global presence by modernizing its fleet. But the use
of civilian boats is part of a different goal — to better defend and more firmly assert sovereignty over China’s
coast, its territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones that extend 200 nautical miles off the coast.
Using civilians is a crucial part of the doctrine that Chinese military officials call “people’s war.”
Dennis J. Blasko, a former military attaché at the United States Embassy in Beijing, said the Chinese military
articulated this in 2006 in a white paper on national defense. “The Navy is enhancing research into the theory
of naval operations and exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions,”
the paper said.
In some cases, employing civilian forces “may be less provocative and with less potential for escalation than
employing active duty PLA forces,” Mr. Blasko said in an e-mail.
The Chinese Navy uses civilian vessels in several ways. One is to command militias made of fishing vessels.
Another is to coordinate operations with five maritime law enforcement groups that have some of the same
functions as the United States Coast Guard, most notably the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, which is
charged by the Agriculture Ministry with enforcing fishing bans and operates regularly in disputed waters.
Some fisheries officials now go out on boats wearing uniforms and carrying firearms, said Bernard D. Cole, a
former officer in the United States Navy and a professor at the National War College.
The Chinese Navy could not be reached for comment. An official at the fisheries bureau headquarters in
Beijing said that fisheries vessels “serve the purpose of administrative law enforcement” and that they did not
work with the Chinese military.
As for relying on fishermen, military exercises off the coast of Fujian Province and comments by Chinese
officials show that the Chinese Navy has been trying to “more effectively organize China’s maritime militia,
based on various fishing fleets,” Mr. Cole said. “The maritime militia in 2010 is quite active.”
A Pentagon report last year noted that in May 2008, two Chinese warships were supplied with ammunition and
fuel at a designated spot off Zhejiang Province by fishing vessels that belonged to the naval militia.
The latest China-Japan dispute has cast scrutiny on Chinese fishing vessels. On Sept. 8, Japanese authorities
detained Zhan Qixiong, a fishing trawler captain, and 14 crew members after the Japanese said that the
trawler had rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels. The Chinese and Japanese boats encountered each
other around the islands known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese in the East China
Sea, an area rich in fish and deposits of natural gas and oil. Both nations claim the islands as their territory, but
Japan administers the area. Japanese patrol boats usually chase away Chinese vessels.
Mr. Zhan was released on Sept. 24, but Japanese newspapers have continued to speculate on Mr. Zhan’s
background. Some call him a Chinese naval officer.
Mr. Zhan has declined to talk to journalists. He and his employer, Wu Tianzhu, who owns 10 fishing vessels in
Mr. Zhan’s home county in Fujian Province, do not work with the Chinese military, said Mr. Wu’s wife, who gave
her name only as Ms. Chen because of the delicacy of discussing security matters. Mr. Zhan has been a
fisherman all his life, she said.
The day Mr. Zhan returned to China, he said he planned to go back to the Diaoyu Islands. About three years
ago, an official document circulated in Shenhu County, where Mr. Zhan lives, telling fishermen not to go to the
disputed waters, said an employee at a local fishing information center who identified himself only as Mr.
Chen. But there has been no such warning in recent years, he added.
“Gradually, more and more boats went to fish there, especially when the harvest was not good enough in other
areas,” he said. “More boats went there last year and this year.”
Civilian boat traffic rose as China began making bolder claims to the East and South China Seas.
It is not just China that allows or encourages its fishermen to enter disputed territorial waters. In April 2007, four
Vietnamese fishing boats were detained by China in the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea.
In July 2007, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after being rammed by a Chinese vessel. One Vietnamese
Last year, two American warships were involved in prominent incidents in which the Chinese Navy appeared
to be working closely with civilian law enforcement vessels and fishing trawlers, Pentagon officials said.
On March 4, the Victorious, an American ship, was illuminated with a spotlight by a fisheries patrol vessel in
the Yellow Sea. The next day, 12 maritime surveillance aircraft did flybys of the Victorious. Four days later, the
Impeccable, an American ship surveying off the south coast of China, was “harassed” by five Chinese vessels
— four of them civilian ships, the Pentagon said.
In these encounters, Mr. Blasko said, “Beijing demonstrated its will to employ military and civilian capabilities
to protect what it considers its sovereignty.”
With tensions on the rise, the fisheries bureau has been eager to publicly cast itself as a protector of China’s
sovereign interests. In late September, as the China-Japan feud was unfolding, it invited a Chinese reporter
from Global Times, a populist newspaper, aboard one of its vessels. The ship was going on a regular run to
the Diaoyu Islands. The reporter, Cheng Gang, wrote of a run-in between the Chinese civilian ship and three
Japanese Coast Guard ships.
The Japanese ships asked the fisheries boat to turn around. The Chinese vessel replied via transmitter: “We
are a Chinese fisheries administration boat. The Diaoyu Islands are China’s indigenous territory, and we are
carrying out official duties in Chinese territorial waters. We ask you to leave immediately!”
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