Chinese fishing vessels manned by armed soldiers arrive in contested islands

Published on
April 1, 2021

A flotilla of 220 Chinese fishing vessels has arrived at the Whitsun Reef, near the western Philippines province of Palawan in the South China Sea.

Part of the Spratly Islands, which China calls the Nansha archipelago, the Whitsun Reef lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. But China has been aggressive in pressing its own claims to the Spratly Islands and other contested islands in the South China Sea, despite a 2016 United Nations tribunal ruling dismissing most of its territorial claims there. Beijing has ignored that decision, pursuing both military and political agendas to take control of the area. While its navy has rammed and sunk Filipino fishing vessels, its government has simultaneously sought to mollify Manila with promises of aid – it has even sent aquaculture experts and fry to help Filipino fishermen reskill.

China’s latest move could be an effort to test the resolve of new U.S. President Joe Biden, according to Tabitha Grace Mallory, an affiliate professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and an expert on China’s distant-water fleet.

“The appearance of vessels that are suspected to be crewed by Chinese maritime militia around Whitsun Reef is overall in line with the trend of increasing Chinese presence in the South China Sea for a few years now,” Mallory told SeafoodSource.

Some Asian commentators have nicknamed the encroaching military presence in the Spratly Islands China’s “little blue men,” after the “little green men” – irregular, non-uniformed troops used by Russia to occupy parts of Ukraine. But a Chinese government spokesperson refuted any premise that the vessels are being used for a military purpose, saying they are moored in the Spratlys “for shelter.”

Mallory said she expects China to continue to press for greater control of the South China Sea, using both military and political means.

“While China is decreasing some of its subsidies for domestic fishing vessels, I suspect that funding will continue for the vessels that belong to what China calls the "Spratly Island Backbone Fleet,’” she said. “Government funding for the vessels is budgeted in five-year increments in accordance with China's five-year planning system, and China provided generous funding for these operations during the 13th five-year plan period. As they are just starting on the 14th five-year plan, we can expect to see new planning and implementation measures for funding soon.”

Photo courtesy of Hit1912/Shutterstock

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