China’s “Maritime Militia” Raising Stakes for South China Sea Clash

This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP, May 10, 2019

For years China has avoided direct military-to-military clashes in the South China Sea through the use of fishing vessels backed by the Chinese Coast Guard to enforce its territorial claims. This “maritime militia” strategy may have exhausted its effectiveness now that the U.S. considers these irregular forces to be under the command of the People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLAN). 

Photo:AP

U.S.-China military dialogues need to increase to match this rising risk of small-scale skirmishes leading to broader armed conflict. Prospects for dialogue, however are dimming as tensions across a range of bilateral issues show no signs of easing.

It was no trivial distinction when, as has been recently made public, U.S. Admiral John Richardson told Chinese Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong in January, 2019, that militia and Navy would be treated the same.

A larger-scale conflict almost occurred as recently as December, 2018, when China sent 100 maritime militia ships to contest the Philippine-occupied Thitu reef located between the island of Palawan and Vietnam. By April, 2019 the number had grown to over 200 ships. Under the new calculus if the Philippine military were attacked by any of these vessels, the treaty-bound U.S. would be obligated to strike back. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reassured Philippine President Duterte of this commitment.

Though small in size, unarmed fishing boats, and armed Coast Guard vessels routinely approach ships in the region and ignore warnings to keep their distance. Any one of these could pose a serious threat as the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which resulted in the death of 17 sailors and the injury of 39, clearly illustrated. 

Without stronger and more regular contact, the threat of even simple harassment activities that have been tolerated in the past may quickly turn to armed conflict.

This change in military operational protocol comes at a time of increasingly tense relations between the U.S. and China as political forces in both countries test the strength of the status quo. U.S. President Trump’s hardline National Security Adviser John Bolton appears ascendant in the administration’s often haphazard foreign policymaking process, often leading public messaging from the White House. He’s taken aggressive stances against Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea with an excessively bellicose approach to international affairs. 

Recent racist comments from State Policy Planning Director Kiron Skinner certainly don’t help bilateral relations either. In a recent Washington speech at a security event sponsored by the centrist New America think tank, she stated that the challenge posed by China is one of a different ethnicity and civilization and a “non-caucasian” great power competitor. 

With this type of xenophobic theorizing posturing as serious policy, more contact and strong lines of communication between the U.S. and China are more important than ever.

Chinese aggression is also on the rise as naval forces have continued to strengthen. A “near miss” occurred as recently as September, 2018 when a Chinese warship deliberately came within 45 yards of the U.S. warship Decatur, forcing the ship to alter course and avoid a serious collision.

Mediating these conflicts used to be the domain of military-to-military contacts at the highest levels of government. Formal dialogues were regularly held under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The peaceful resolution of a 2001 mid-air collision between a Chinese jet and a U.S. P-3 surveillance plane, which resulted in the death of a Chinese pilot and the emergency landing of the U.S. crew on Hainan, provides ample evidence of the value of continued communication.

Without stronger and more regular contact, the threat of even simple harassment activities that have been tolerated in the past may quickly turn to armed conflict. As history shows, what starts out small and contained can quickly escalate in ways neither country can easily control. 

Facts at sea are not going to change anytime soon. The U.S., as well as other countries, will continue Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea in areas globally recognized as international waters. 

Image: Central Intelligence Agency – Asia Maps — Perry-Castañeda Map Collection: South China Sea (Islands) 1988

China is strengthening its artificial islands and their naval harbors, airstrips, and radar installations even though Xi Jinping specifically said he would not militarize the South China Sea back in 2015. 

International and regional responses to these provocations have been exceptionally muted.

Despite a 2016 ruling by a UN tribunal, which declared these installations illegitimate, China has continued to build, occupy, and arm its South China Sea outposts. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, makes clear that artificially constructed islands cannot be used as justification for territorial claims. 

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), comprised of 27 nations, has been unable to address concerns over China’s conduct in the South China Sea. An ARF member, China routinely blocks attempts to address these issues.

Which leaves bilateral relations as the main driver of discourse. 

As China’s ambitions expand economically and politically around the globe, its military reach will inevitably grow as well. The build-up, including several aircraft carriers and plans for several more, as well as advanced submarines speak to ambitions that go far beyond China’s coast. 

Without an effective and regular mechanism for two of the world’s largest military powers to address their issues in a peaceful manner, the greater the risk of conflict. Neither country should let this situation devolve further. There’s already too much at stake in a relationship that grows more tense with time.