Non-military encounters in South China Sea to intensify if Philippines implements maritime militia plan, say observers

Liu Zhen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 24 2020 11:33 PM

Manila’s navy chief announced last week that about 240 militiamen would be deployed to the contested waters of the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands

Implementation of the plan remains unclear as the nation’s defence secretary says there is currently no government budget for it

An aerial shot of Chinese-claimed reef Subi reef, from a Philippine airforce plane, as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana along with some journalists visit the Philippine-claimed Thitu island just opposite Subi reef in Spratlys on April 21, 2017. Ted Aljibe, AFP

The risk of close encounters between non-military forces in the disputed South China Sea is likely to intensify if the plan by the Philippines to deploy maritime militia is implemented, observers said.

Manila’s navy chief Giovanni Carlo Bacordo announced last week that about 240 militiamen would be deployed to the contested waters of the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands – recruiting fishermen and organising them into seaborne militia units to counter China’s growing presence in the disputed waters.

The implementation of the plan remained unclear as the nation’s Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there was no government budget for it.

Chen Xiangmiao, an associate researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the Philippine plan might be a reaction to tension in the region over the past year or two and domestic pressure to protect fishermen.

Last year reportedly at least 100 Chinese fishing boats, organised like militia, gathered near the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island.

Until the Philippines materialises its plans, China and Vietnam would be South China Sea’s only players employing maritime militia. Other claimants of the resource-rich waters – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – are less likely to do so.

In July, Vietnam’s laws on civil defence forces stating that “coastal or insular communes can organise squads or platoons of militia” took effect. The European Union estimated Vietnam has enlisted 8,000 fishing boats, and 1.22 per cent of its fishermen, or about 46,000, as militia.

There is no official data for China, but the US has estimated that up to 20,000 vessels are in its militia.

“Between China and Vietnam, the conflicts between militias or other non-military forces … would probably increase,” Chen said.

With extensive legacy of “people’s war” and guerilla warfare, Beijing and Hanoi both have a long history of maritime militia and proficiency in mobilising fishermen and their boats in activities to assert claims in the disputed South China Sea.

Most notable cases included Chinese fishermen hindering operation of US surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in 2009, and Vietnamese fishing vessels besieging China’s HYSY 981 oil rig in 2014. The two sides had a confrontation, together with their own coastguards, last year in Vanguard Bank.

“China uses the maritime militia to bolster claims in the disputed waters, and so does Vietnam despite them investing in building up their navies and maritime law enforcement agencies,” said Collin Koh, research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “It might be appropriate to see maritime militia as part of the ‘whole of nation’ or ‘whole of society’ approach in securing national maritime interests.”

The United States views the Chinese maritime militia as playing “a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting”, according to a China military report by the Pentagon.

Last year, the then-US Navy chief John Richardson told his Chinese counterpart Shen Jinlong that his forces would not treat the Chinese coastguard or maritime militia differently from the People’s Liberation Army navy.

Chen said as a result, Chinese militia in the South China Sea will be replaced by formal civilian law enforcement, except for unique situations, according to Chen. But Vietnam has stepped up their deployment of maritime militia, conducting surveillance of military bases and Chinese controlled reefs, he added.

“In most cases, coastguard ships will be enough and appropriate to handle them,” Chen said. “Only in most sensitive areas, and for safety and reciprocity reasons, there might be militia versus militia, in order to control the level of incident, but such incidents could occur more often.”