The warm waters of the South China Sea are rich, which make them highly contested fishing grounds. China is the largest littoral state around this body of water, and it has a huge population to feed. It has built several supporting harbors and infrastructure in the last few years in the area, enabling it to deploy the largest fishing fleet in the South China Sea. The Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) leads and protects China’s huge armada of fishing vessels.
The CMM’s purpose is to keep Chinese aggression at sea below the level of naval operations, thus complicating the littoral states’ responses to China’s maritime expansion. It hides behind a civilian facade, which allows it to hide behind the cloak of deniability. This gives China a powerful incentive to dissemble and deny the evidence of the militia’s invisible role of asserting Chinese maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. The CMM is not a maritime law enforcement agency even as it supports China’s goal of gaining control over the whole of the South China Sea through gray zone operations.
It was US naval analysts who alerted the world about China’s gray zone operations, including the deployment of non-naval coastguard and CMM fishing vessels geared to enlarge Chinese presence in the contested waters. An American analyst defines gray zone operations as “actions in the sea that often blur the line between military and non-military platforms, actions, and attribution for events, and are often, but not always, undertaken to assert” a territorial claim. Claiming that there is such a thing as Chinese gray zone operations, however, ignores how China has perfected a type of political warfare nearly 4,000 years ago, one which considers the use of force as a last resort and aims to defeat an enemy without actually fighting.
AN ACCIDENT OR A CMM OPERATION?
On the midnight of June 9, 2019, a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a wooden Filipino fishing boat, the F/B Gem-Ver 1, then anchored at Reed Bank. After the collision, the Chinese vessel turned off its signal lights and sailed away as the Filipino boat sank. The 22 Filipino fishermen abandoned their boat and struggled to keep themselves afloat for more than six hours. Fortunately, a Vietnamese fishing vessel was in the vicinity and rescued all the Filipino fishermen.
On June 12, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana publicly announced the incident and criticized the Chinese for abandoning the Filipino fishermen to the mercy of the sea. Mr. Lorenzana said “the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel that abandoned the Filipino fishermen is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.” He called for a formal investigation of the incident and appealed to authorities to take the appropriate diplomatic steps.
On June 13, the Chinese foreign ministry came out with a dismissive statement, calling the June 9 Reed Bank incident as “an ordinary maritime traffic accident.” China was still investigating the matter, said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang. “If relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrators came from, their behavior should be condemned,” he added, even as he castigated the Philippines for politicizing the incident without verification.
Philippine Navy (PN) Vice-Admiral Robert Empedrad challenged the Chinese position. According to him, it was a deliberate maneuver by the Chinese vessel to ram a smaller wooden Filipino boat. “The Filipino boat was anchored,” he said. “Based on the International Rules of the Road, it had the privilege because it could not evade an incoming ship. So the boat was rammed. This is not a normal incident.” He added: “It was the Chinese disregard for the safety and well-being of the 22 Filipino fishermen that made the incident doubly reprehensible.”
Supreme Court Associate Justice Carpio argued that no ordinary Chinese fishing vessels would engage in the ramming of other fishing boats for fear of inflicting damage to their own vessel. According to him, a CMM vessel probably sank the Filipino boat since it has a reinforced steel hull designed for ramming fishing vessels of other coastal states in the South China Sea.
Mr. Carpio observed that CMM vessels often loitered in the territorial waters off Philippine-occupied Pagasa (Thitu) island and other Philippine-occupied rocks in the Spratlys to intimidate Filipino occupants. The alleged ramming and sinking marks a possible quantum escalation of China’s aggressive acts against the Philippines. This incident might be the start of a new Chinese “gray zone” offensive to drive Filipino fisherman away from their traditional fishing grounds in the Reed Bank.
LET THE CHINESE FISH IN PHILIPPINE EEZ!
The captain of the ill-fated Gem-Ver 1 confirmed the navy chief’s account that the incident was deliberate since the crew of the Chinese vessel saw his fishing vessel before the collision. Ship captain Jonnel Insigne said that the Chinese vessel turned its lights on seconds before it rammed the Gem-Ver 1 and fled the scene with its lights off after the smaller wooden Filipino boat began to sink with all its catch and equipment. He told reporters that they thought the Chinese would pick them out of the water after the boat sank but they left the Filipinos alone in the dark. After interviewing the fishermen, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed that an investigation was ongoing but intelligence reports were “confident” that the Philippine boat was stationary when it was hit by the Chinese vessel.
Instead of considering the June 9 incident as a possible CMM operation, however, the current administration immediately adopted the Chinese government position that it was an “ordinary maritime incident.” It has also agreed to a joint investigation with China. To add insult to injury, President Rodrigo R. Duterte also wants the Chinese fishermen to fish in Philippine waters because the Philippines and China are friends. Such a position does not only violate the Philippines Constitution, it offers to China’s huge fishing armada and the CMM the opportunity to conduct more gray zone operations that will afford Beijing the capability to drive Filipino fishing boats away in the West Philippine Sea.
Renato Cruz De Castro is a Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute.