A significant number of Chinese fishing vessels roaming the disputed South China Sea are there not to catch fish but to allegedly serve as an additional militia force on behalf of its state in the resource-rich sea, a Washington-based think-tank said.
“A different kind of fishing fleet, one engaged in paramilitary work on behalf of the state rather than the commercial enterprise of fishing, has emerged as the largest force in the Spratlys,” says a special report authored by security expert Gregory Poling.
More than 50 percent of the fishing vessels in the world are operating in the South China Sea.
To track down and get a closer picture of the presence of the fishing vessels in the contested waters, various technologies such as Automatic Identification System (AIS), Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) were employed in the research published by the Stephenson Ocean Security Project and launched by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) this month.
The massive presence of vessels in and around China’s outposts, particularly its two largest at Subi and Mischief Reefs, was described by Poling as the biggest finding in the study.
Over a hundred fishing vessels were detected in the area by the technologies used in two separate instances in August and October 2018.
The research team then employed a high-resolution satellite imagery to get a closer glimpse at the details of the fishing vessels present.
By zooming in, the team discovered that Chinese fishing ships “account for the largest number of vessels operating in the Spratlys by far.”
“An analysis of historical imagery shows that the numbers of Chinese ships at Subi and Mischief were much higher in 2018 than in 2017,” the report said.
“In August, which appears to have been the busiest month, there were about 300 ships anchored at the two reefs at any given time,” it added.
Poling further noted that 90 percent of these fishing vessels has an average length of 51 meters and a projected displacement of about 550 tons.
What is even more interesting is that the Chinese fishing vessels were supposedly not fishing.
“In almost every case, the Chinese fishing boats captured in imagery are riding at anchor or transiting without fishing,” the report said.
Moreover, it was also noted in the study that the presence of such a great number of large fishing vessels in the Spratlys far exceeds the amount of catch that can possibly and sustainably be generated in the area.
“The more than 270 fishing boats present at Subi and Mischief Reefs in August could catch about 3,240 metric tons per day or nearly 1.2 million metric tons per year. That is between 50 and 100 percent of the total estimated catch in the Spratly Islands,” it said.
The “gross overcapacity” of the fishing vessels and their tendency to “congregate around both Chinese-occupied reefs and those held by other claimants” led Poling to conclude that most of these commercial ships, at least part-time, serve as China’s maritime militia which conduct patrol, surveillance, resupply, and other missions in the disputed waters.
The report cited the Yue Tai Yu Fleet, observed to have lengthy stays at Subi and Mischief Reefs, and roaming around other Chinese facilities in the South China Sea.
“These large modern trawlers, which likely cost $100 million or more to build, are not producing much commercial benefit to their owners,” Poling said.
“If they are any indication, Beijing is sinking a stunning amount of money into subsidizing the operations of a massive and largely unproductive fishing fleet in the Spratly Islands,” he added.
In conclusion, Poling said that a stronger mechanism in monitoring the fleets present in the disputed waters is needed to “save the South China Sea fisheries and reduce the frequency of unlooked-for incidents between vessels.” —LDF/BM, GMA Network