By Sanjay Kumar
The Philippines recently lodged diplomatic protests over China’s ‘illegal’ presence near Thitu Island in the South China Sea. Tension has been mounting in this part of the sea with the Philippines refusing to withdraw vessels from Whitsun Reef. Two-hundred-and-twenty Chinese vessels congregated in early March at Union Banks and Whitsun Reef, the reason for the present standoff between China and the Philippines. The area involved in the present dispute is well within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EZZ) of the Philippines, justifying the country’s claim to the islands.
Why is the South China Sea so important to China? The dragon wants to dominate the South China Sea because that would give Beijing strategic advantage against Taiwan and Japan, before risking a conflict over the Senkaku. But it is not only about strategy, economics and commerce are also playing important roles. China’s ever-growing need for fish, both for internal consumption and export, is also an important factor. The country is already the largest exporter of fish in the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping always goes for an easy target that he believes can be achieved with minimal risk and costs.
Recent media reports quoting Global Times suggest that China has warned the United States that it will face defeat if the two superpowers go to war. This warning is a testimony to what China thinks about its military might. The threat to the US has come from China in response to the joint military exercise carried out by the US, Japan, Australia and France recently amidst tension in the East China Sea.
There is a dilemma for the Philippines in the present crisis as the Chinese Maritime Militia is not doing anything to disturb peace. The Philippines cannot believe China and its militia. The Chinese militia may leave the spot temporarily and come back again. The Chinese Coast Guard does not escort them.
The Philippines has to keep a close eye on China’s movement in the Whitsun Reef, particularly on Chinese Air Force. They don’t have to fear till Chinese Air Force is involved in the present stalemate. They need to watch every action of China and also send a message that they are watching.
On being asked as to how to end the present deadlock in South China Sea, where the Chinese Maritime Militia is not ready to leave Whitsun Reef, Professor Carl Schuster of Hawaii Pacific University, who is an expert on maritime issues, says that the present President of Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, hates the US and he does not want a situation where he has to seek its help. However, by now Rodrigo must have realized that China is worse than the US. Rodrigo is upset over the fact that if the US was there to protect the Philippines from China and Russia, then why did it involve itself in the internal politics of the Philippines at the time of the coup. So, Rodrigo is stuck between an enemy he cannot trust and a friend whom he does not like. He is in a tight spot.
All the countries that have their interest in the South China Sea should come together and back their respective Coast Guards to end the present crisis. China goes for easy prey. Look back to 1996 — the Philippines stopped patrolling the area around Campones Island after the US left. China took advantage of the situation and captured Campones Island after a 90-minute gun battle. The Philippines did later say that they could not patrol the area due to bad weather, which could be the reality.
The Philippines’ ships were old. They found that the Chinese have built a fishing shaft with artillery and other weapons. It was too late, they had left it unoccupied. “The Philippines took their eyes off the ball and paid for it,” adds Prof Schuster.
The US does not have a position on the South China Sea. It is between the claimants. The US’s only aim is to handle China. Also, the Philippines has never approached the US at the official level to change this position.
The US can’t do anything directly to end the stalemate. What it can do is to back up the Philippines Coast Guard in the South China Sea. Once China comes to know about this understanding, it will be a different ballgame altogether. China is accustomed to moving in a vacuum. The situation will completely change when American and Philippines’ Coast Guards will move in each other’s vessels.
The only thing which stops an aggressor is the fear of defeat. More than the Philippines and Vietnam, it has to be a united effort by all the countries affected by China’s bullying in the region. Vietnam, Japan and the US are willing to help the Philippines, but Rodrigo says he doesn’t want to upset China. When China bullies his countrymen, he gets upset. China is bullying the Philippines people because the Chinese know they can get away with it.
The problem with Vietnam is bigger. If the Chinese set up a base in Cambodia, which they will one day because if you look at the map, it is a natural progression. This is going to expose Vietnam’s entire western border.
The Philippines needs submarines to defend its interests in the South China Sea, which can be provided by Japan, which has a big stake in this area as 40% of Japan’s maritime trade passes through this area. Japan will help the Philippines with submarines and air power. If China stops Japanese ships from entering the South China Sea, it will take 11 additional days for Japanese cargo ships to reach their destinations.
What prevented Russia during the Cold War was not the fear of the US, but the fear that they will have to deal with not only the US, but the whole of the European alliance. So, these nations together can keep China in check.
Such is the highhandedness of China that when an International Arbitration held the Chinese occupation illegal, it refused to abide by the judgment. However, this development will go in favour of the Philippines as the international community is aware that China has illegally occupied it.
China’s Maritime Militia is very often a party in these disputes due to its bullying tactics along the maritime boundary with Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.
The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) of China owes its origin to the Communist Party’s 1950 consolidation of people’s militia groups comprising mainly fishermen and coastal workers of China. Its initial role was confined to keeping a close eye on People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s coastal waters and reporting any suspected activities to the Chinese Army (PLA). These militia were recruited, trained and equipped by the party’s Bureau of Aquatic Products, which authorizes former PLA officers [TS1] to train and direct the militias’ operations.
These militia groups operated very close to the maritime boundary till the 1960s. However, their activities started expanding in subsequent years. They started bullying South Vietnamese fishermen in Paracel and Spratly islands in the late 1960s. Their first major victory came in January 1974 when they seized South Vietnam’s Paracel Islands. They engaged the South Vietnam Naval unit with 400 militia troops and captured the islands. This island has remained with China ever since.
The PAFMM has been leading China’s bullying in the East and South China Sea from the early 1980s. They threaten the Vietnamese and Filipino fishing ships, which are small, slow and less robust. The militia threatens these fishing boats with small arms and attacks them with high pressure water cannons, very often sinking them. This is particularly true for Vietnamese fishing vehicles. The Chinese Coast Guards are often seen helping these militia groups in their nefarious activities.
In fact, due to the early gains by this militia unit, China built ‘fishing shelters’ to protect their fishermen in the Spratly islands. Their activities increased further after the US Navy pulled out of the Philippines in 1994. With the help of the PLA, the PAFMM isolated all the neighbouring countries and captured Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal. This compelled the US to follow a proactive strategy and support the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Despite all these activities by PAFMM, the Chinese government headed by Xi has never accepted any link between PAFMM and China’s military. China claims that they are fishermen and that there is no involvement of its government in these scuffles.
The PAFMM does not regularly use firearms or other military weapons so their actions cannot be called an ‘act of war’ which might trigger retaliation. It may also compel Manila to seek the US support under the US-Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty. That is why the US calls China’s actions ‘Grey Zone Operations’, which means they are acts of aggression, but fall short of military actions that would risk triggering a military response.
For occupying an uninhabited island, the PAFMM does the initial seizure posing as fishermen. When other countries confront them with their Coast Guards or other law enforcement agencies, they find themselves confronting an armed militia, which is fully backed by China’s Coast Guard or Navy. The situation can escalate into a full-fledged war if the other party insists on vacating the island.
At the time of the real war, PAFMM may shift to supporting roles like defensive mining. They did this during the PLA-Navy exercise in 2014. They would act as one of the many eyes of the fleet, land militia troops in remote areas or covert land troops before the actual war starts.
A unit of the People’s Armed Forces, PAFMM operates under direct military command for carrying out state-sponsored activities. Although they are locally supported, they report to the head of China’s military — Commander-in-Chief Xi.
The exact number of fishing vessels possessed by PAFMM is not known, but estimates put the figure at around 350, out of which 225 are deployed in the South China Sea. Their vessel hulls are made up of reinforced steel, which are very strong. On the other hand, most of the other fishing vessels in the South China Sea are made of wood or other light materials. The PAFMM vessels are faster, which puts them at an advantageous position in an encounter. They can ‘bump’ the enemy’s vessel at will with little risk of damaging their own strong hull.
Most of the fishermen from other countries are unarmed, but PAFMM vessels have small arms and, in some cases, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and machine guns. They are rarely used but are available on the vessels.
The PAFMM vessels have water cannons mounted above the pilot house. They aim the spray at the other vessels’ pilot house to blind the crew, but sometimes they aim it at the engine exhaust. Cold sea water hitting a hot engine tends to damage the engine, leaving the craft non-functional in the water. The PAFMM vessel can then do what it wants — bump, ram or just leave.
China places greater importance to claims on the South China Sea because of its strategic location. The political and strategic payoff is bigger in the South China Sea compared to the East China Sea and the risks and operational difficulties are less. The South China Sea is easier to dominate. The PAFMM base in Sanya is closer to the disputed territories in the South China Sea than the PAFMM bases in Guangzhou and the Senkaku. They must pass through Taiwan to reach Senkaku.
China’s military bases and airfields are closer to the disputed territory in the South China Sea than they are from the US bases in Japan. The East China Sea is not strategically located. The US and Chinese bases are equidistant from Senkaku. Also, Japan’s Coast Guard is stronger than those of Vietnam and the Philippines, China’s main target in the South China Sea. The PAFMM gets greater support in the South China Sea from the Chinese military establishments.
Traditional thought in Chinese military believes in isolating the enemy and establishing an advantageous geopolitical and military superiority before engaging in a war. Also, the best leader is the one who achieves ‘victory’ without fighting. China has secured much of the South China Sea and is using the PAFMM to expand its control without firing a shot. It has worked so far. However, doing that around the Senkaku may prove to be difficult and expensive.
(The author is a journalist with over 26 years of experience. During this period, he has worked in various news organizations in India, including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, NDTV and India Today. Currently, he is the Editor of MSN-India.)