The US needs to step up to China in the South China Sea before it's too late

While military deployments to the tense seas around Southern China often make headlines, China has been quietly building paramilitary forces out of their coast guard and fishing fleets.

China operates the biggest fishing fleet in the world, and in the South China Sea, where its sweeping territorial claims conflict with its neighbours, Beijing uses these fishing ships as a kind of militia to harass and block other nation’s vessels from accessing the vital trade routes and fishing grounds.

In an interview with DefenseNews, Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy with the US Naval War College and a founding member of the China Maritime Studies Institute, suggested that it’s time to start treating these fishing boats as the aggressive militias they are.

While the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently released an eye-opening report on China’s use of its coast guard as a sort of “second navy,” Beijing’s inclusion of fishing fleets in its maritime law enforcement push has gone on for years now as a kind of open secret.

“China’s maritime militia is only as deniable for China as we allow it to be, and we don’t have to allow it to be deniable,” said Erickson.

According to Erickson, China doesn’t publicize its militia in any English language publication, but in domestic internet pages and files, China makes it abundantly clear that the fishing vessels have a “militia” function.

“There is plenty of evidence of the front-line elite Chinese maritime militia units answering specifically to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command, being entrusted with the fulfilling of specific state-sponsored missions with respect to participation in international sea encounters and incidents,” said Erickson.

However, Erickson says the US military, and practically no one in the US, has said a word about this. This leads to China having a dangerous advantage, where it may even now be collecting photos and videos to later use as propaganda, showing its secret militia in a benign light.

Erickson says that by the US simply showing it is on to China’s adventurism, and that the US intelligence apparatus can read in Chinese too, could help to deter Beijing from pushing the envelope in the South China Sea, where incidents have already occurred between nations being bullied by Chinese fishing vessels.

“I believe we already have enough data to make very conclusive durable connections using sources that, within China’s own system, are authoritative and legitimate. The only thing missing is for some US government official and report to state this officially,” Erickson said.

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