‘Paid agents’: New report lifts lid on Chinese maritime militia

They included a special fuel subsidy for fishing in the Spratlys, a one-time bonus for vessels in “specially designated waters” and further subsidies for the building and renovation of professional militia boats, for communications and navigation equipment and for the training of military veterans to serve on the vessels.

“Their operations are funded by the Chinese government through subsidies that incentivise local actors to construct vessels in accordance with military specifications and to operate them in disputed waters, ready to assist Chinese law enforcement and naval forces when necessary,” the report said.

It said it could “conclusively demonstrate that the majority of Chinese fishing vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea do not operate as independent commercial actors but instead as paid agents of the Chinese government obligated to help fulfil its political and national security objectives”.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have rival territorial claims inside China’s self-determined nine-dash line while Indonesia, while technically not a claimant, has also pushed back against Beijing over fishing rights in its exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands.

There are different diplomatic approaches to Chinese incursions taken by south-east Asian nations but both the Philippines and Malaysia have summoned China’s ambassadors to their countries this year.

In March and April Manila sounded repeated protests over the presence of more than 200 suspected maritime militia vessels within its territory at Whitsun Reef, not buying Beijing’s explanation that they were fishing boats taking cover from inclement weather.

The mooring of Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef in March triggered a row with the Philippines.Credit:AP

Malaysia called in the ambassador in Kuala Lumpur for a second time this year last month, reacting to ongoing harassment of its state-owned oil company Petronas as it establishes a gas field in its exclusive economic zone, 200 kilometres off the coast of Sarawak on Borneo.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in October he expected the visits by Chinese coast guard vessels to continue and even increase for as long as the project went on.

“I have lost count of the number of protest notes we have sent to China,” he said. “We will be steadfast and continue to respond diplomatically to them.”

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Indonesia has also taken note of the presence of a Chinese survey vessel near one of its oil and gas fields between August and October but has not taken up the issue with Beijing.

“We respect freedom of navigation in Natuna Sea,” said Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, during a visit to the US last month.

The CSIS report said the ability of Chinese vessels to deploy from outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands had “radically changed the peacetime balance of forces in the South China Sea”.

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