Xi Likes Big Boats (Coming Soon to a Reef Near You)
When General Secretary Xi Jinping visited Tanmen village in April 2013, he famously urged China’s South China Sea fishers to “build big boats, charge forth on the deep sea, and catch big fish.” As recent scenes from Whitsun Reef reveal, however, very little “charging” is taking place, which means very few “big fish.” But, in one respect, Chinese fishers have clearly obeyed Xi’s command: They have built some very large boats.
Photos the Philippine government released in March show nests of Chinese fishing vessels moored in the lagoon of the disputed reef. Aside from the sheer number of craft present, one is struck by the size of individual vessels. Satellite images reveal many boats 60 meters (almost 200 feet) in length — dwarfing the Philippine Coast Guard vessel (BRP Cabra) sent to monitor their activities.
Chinese fishers did not buy these boats out of mere love for Xi. Even if that were their motive, they could not afford these expensive craft without some help. Rather, the more than 200 fishing vessels seen congregating at Whitsun Reef are largely a product of policies that China has designed to prioritize Spratly fishing vessels in a national program to modernize the country’s fishing industry. This program has provided China’s maritime militia with potent new tools with which to exert influence and control in disputed maritime space — posing significant new challenges for Southeast Asian states.
New Ideas, New Policies
Chinese fishing vessels have operated among the Spratly Islands since 1985. Members of China’s maritime militia, operating specially equipped vessels, carried out the first expedition south of 12 degrees latitude — China’s boundary for the “Spratly waters” (南沙海域). By the 1990s, boats owned by private fishing companies began operating there, seeking commercial opportunities that were rapidly shrinking in China’s own over-fished coastal waters. The Chinese government, which saw political benefit in their presence in a disputed space, spurred them on. These privately owned boats reflected the realities of China’s marine fishing industry at the time. Most were small wooden vessels. They were prone to break down, vulnerable to bad weather, and unproductive.
The backwardness of China’s Spratly fishing fleet was apparently not a major concern for Chinese policymakers. Through the early 2000s, the country’s “five year plans” for fisheries development did recognize the need to modernize the marine fishing industry. However, both the 11th (2006–2011) and the 12th (2011–2015) iterations focused on upgrading the distant water fishing fleet, (i.e., the vessels operating outside of East Asia), not the boats active in the South China Sea.
This changed in 2012. In April of that year, the Scarborough Shoal standoff highlighted the vital role of fishing vessels operating in disputed spaces. In mid-2012, Xi Jinping took charge of the Chinese Communist Party’s “leading small group” responsible for overseeing maritime dispute policy. In November 2012, he became general secretary of the party, giving him unequalled authority with which to pursue his ambitions to transform China into a “maritime power.”
In September 2012, 27 scholars from the Chinese Academy of Engineering submitted a proposal to the Chinese State Council calling for China to elevate marine fishing to a “strategic industry.” To do so, they argued, the country should take advantage of excess capacity in the country’s shipyards to “accelerate the upgrading of fishing equipment.” The scholars recommended that the state support the construction of elite, or “backbone” (骨干), fleets in the South China Sea. Vessels in the fleet would have “advanced equipment, high mobility, and good safety characteristics.”
Their proposal was apparently so well-received that it led to a catalog of new policies to support the marine fishing industry. In March 2013, the State Council issued a document entitled “Opinions on Promoting the Sustainable and Healthy Development of China’s Marine Fishing Industry.” It called for controlling fishing in China’s over-fished coastal waters while expanding fishing in the “outer seas” (外海) (i.e., waters along China’s maritime periphery), all of which are disputed. It also called for accelerating the “upgrade and transformation” (更新改造) of fishing vessels, meaning scrapping old wooden fishing boats and replacing them with steel-hulled craft. Meanwhile, also in March, the Chinese press revealed that the Ministry of Agriculture was already developing policies to boost fuel subsidies for Chinese boats operating in the Spratlys and formulating plans to establish a “Spratly backbone fleet.”
In November 2015, the Ministry of Agriculture issued the “Implementation Plan for Adjusting the Policy for Fuel Subsidies for Domestic Fishing and Aquaculture.” Despite its title, the document included content on government programs to help Chinese fishers build new vessels. It authorized support for the construction of a backbone fleet to operate in “specially designated waters” (特定水域), the code words for the Spratlys. This document imposed limits on the maximum number of subsidies for new Chinese fishing vessels. But it bent the rules for Spratly boats, encouraging local governments to provide additional subsidies, both to build new boats and offset fuel costs for activities in Spratly waters.
These initiatives culminated in an October 2017 regulation issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, providing detailed guidance for subsidizing upgrades to the marine fishing fleet. Like the documents that preceded it, it cites the goal of getting rid of “old, obsolete, wooden” boats and replacing them with modern large steel vessels. It specifically calls for the central government to “continue to support the construction of the Spratly backbone fishing fleet.” Like the 2015 document on updating fuel subsidies (cited above), it authorizes provincial governments to boost monetary support for new Spratly boats above the normal limits.
Spotlight on Guangdong
China’s South China Sea provinces have answered the call. Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan have each issued their own plans for subsidizing Spratly fleet construction. Moreover, cities, towns, and districts in these provinces have also vowed to contribute to the provincial and national programs by providing additional monetary and other support.
Guangdong province is a case in point. Judging from hull markings, many of the vessels at Whitsun Reef come from this province of 115 million. In June 2016, it issued a document outlining its own plans for subsidizing its fishing industry. Echoing central regulations, the plan calls for “eliminating old boats and building new, eliminating small boats and building big, and eliminating wooden boats and building steel.” It also cites a desire to shift fisheries production to the “outer seas.” The document pledges to augment central government grants by 50 percent for owners of newly built Spratly backbone fishing vessels. Appended to the document is a copy of the province’s “Implementation Plan for Upgrading and Transforming Guangdong Fishing Vessels.” The plan cites support for building the backbone Spratly fleet as its first priority. It, too, calls for supplementing central government subsidies by an additional 50 percent.
Together, the central and provincial government plans have provided huge sums of money for the construction of new Spratly boats. Again, the case of Guangdong is instructive. On Nov. 6, 2019, Taishan City released a table showing subsidies provided for eight newly built Spratly fishing boats. All are registered in Guanghai — the same district as several of the boats photographed at Whitsun. All the vessels listed in the table are large: between 45 to 55 meters in length, with engines ranging from 600 to 1200 kilowatts. According to the table, the central government contributed 26 million yuan ($3.8 million) in grants, while Guangdong province contributed the promised additional 50 percent (i.e., 13 million yuan). In total, boat owners received close to 5 million yuan per boat. According to a 2015 article written by analysts from the Ministry of Agriculture, a new 50-meter steel-hulled trawler built in China costs roughly 8 million yuan. That means the Chinese government covered well over half the cost of the eight new boats.
In Guangdong, the upgrade program has utterly transformed the province’s Spratly fishing fleet. In 2015, the first year of the program, the province managed to build 12 Spratly “backbone” vessels. By 2017, Guangdong could boast 153 new Spratly backbone vessels in a single year. These trends are born out in Taishan. Before 2015, the Taishan Spratly Fisherman’s Association only had 40 Spratly boats, all constructed of wood. By late 2020, the head of the Association claimed a fleet of 78 Spratly boats, 77 of which were steel and all of which were over 55 meters long.
Guangdong is just one of three provinces that have, along with the central government, contributed large sums of money to help Chinese fishers build large steel-hulled fishing vessels specifically for use in the Spratly waters. The total size of the Spratly “backbone” fleet is unknown, but it is likely well over 500 hulls. This means a major portion of the new fleet was seen massed at Whitsun Reef in March.
Connections to the Maritime Militia
Despite being a component of China’s armed forces, the maritime militia lacks a national organization with its own leadership and budget. Most members have “day jobs” in marine industries, especially fishing. Thus, they are directly affected by policies regulating their respective industries. For instance, militiamen operating in the Spratlys receive Spratly fuel subsidies. They have also directly benefited from the Spratly fleet upgrade program discussed above.
Existing militia units have received new Spratly boats. From 2014 to 2015, for example, residents of Tanmen Village (Hainan) took advantage of the subsidy program to build over 50 steel-hulled vessels, each displacing 300 to 500 tons. Wang Shumao, second in command of Tanmen’s maritime militia company, was among the lucky recipients. The ordinarily serious Wang declared to a Chinese reporter, “Piloting my new steel-hulled fishing vessel feels awesome!” In a July 2016 essay, the Central Military Commission chief responsible for militia affairs, Wang Wenqing, highlighted the importance of additional policies to “bring maritime militia fishing vessels into local fishing vessel upgrade plans.”
In some locales, joining the militia is apparently a precondition for receiving the subsidies. For example, the fishing vessel upgrade plan for Hainan’s Yangpu Economic Development Zone clearly states that vessels receiving subsidies will enter the militia. This means that, when conducting sovereignty operations and other “national defense tasks” in the South China Sea, they “must submit to the [military’s] unified command and control.” Similar policies in Guangdong may also explain the militia affiliation of the nine large trawlers owned by Taishan’s Fancheng Fisheries Development, seven of which were recently observed operating at Union Banks.
Other sources treat the subsidized vessels as constituting an organizational whole subject to state control. A 2017 report reveals that, in the case of Guangdong, the development, training, and operations of the Spratly backbone fleet represent a joint effort by the provincial Fisheries Bureau and the Guangdong provincial military district. At the very least, this suggests a heavy militia element within the fleet, but it could also mean that every boat in the fleet is subject to military tasking.
Members of China’s maritime militia have operated in the Spratlys for over three decades. Today, they go there embedded in a brand new fleet comprising hundreds of large steel-hulled vessels — the product of a national program to modernize China’s marine fishing industry. The successful rollout of this program has enhanced the militia’s ability to perform all facets of its mission set.
In the Spratlys, the militia’s most important mission is to maintain presence in disputed space. Presence is the currency of control in the maritime domain, as the ocean cannot be occupied like land territory. Presence also allows maritime militia vessels to collect intelligence, thereby boosting the People Liberation Army’s awareness of foreign activities in these waters. The new vessels offer important advantages in this respect, as their size enables them to carry more fuel and provisions — giving them much greater endurance.
China’s maritime militia also sometimes perform more coercive operations. For instance, they provide security for Chinese civilian vessels as they operate in disputed space. The classic example of these “escort” operations involved the 2014 defense of the HYSY-981 drilling rig in waters south of the Paracel Islands. But more recently, in July 2019, members of the Sansha maritime militia — operating elements of their new fleet of 60-meter fishing vessels — flanked the Haiyangdizhi 8 as it conducted seismic surveys in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Larger vessels are better able to physically block other states’ forces from approaching the vulnerable craft under their protection. The militia is also known to harass foreign vessels operating in Chinese claimed space. They do this by threatening to ram or bump their victims, forcing them to cease operations or risk collision. Clearly, the coercive capacity of a 600-ton steel vessel is much greater than that of a 80-ton wooden one.
How might Southeast Asian states respond? Because of their comparative weakness, they cannot simply build more and bigger coast guard vessels and send them out to meet steel with steel. In fact, Beijing would probably relish another major confrontation near a disputed land feature. It would give it a pretext to escalate and potentially seize a new piece of territory.
These large modern fishing vessels in the hands of China’s maritime militia pose special challenges for Southeast Asian states. They make it much more difficult for countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam to protect their exclusive rights to living and non-living resources out to 200 nautical miles from their coasts. Indeed, many boats in the new Spratly fishing fleet are larger than the regional coast guard cutters that would seek to board them. As a result, they should either accept the illegal presence of Chinese fishers within their exclusive economic zones, or use armed force to evict them — which could encourage Beijing to respond in kind. On the flip side, a better equipped maritime militia is also more capable of coercively imposing Chinas own prerogatives in disputed areas, by threatening the physical safety of foreign mariners with collision or worse. In sum, the new fleet enriches the “tool kit” used by China to assert control over vast areas of the South China Sea on the basis of its notorious — and utterly discredited — “nine-dash line.”
Instead, the best option for other Southeast Asian states may be to do as the Philippines government has done — to publicly document the activities of China’s new Spratly fishing fleet. This puts China on the defensive — forcing them to issue weak, unconvincing denials — and limits its ability to portray itself as the victim if and when an incident occurs. Ultimately, this approach could undermine Beijing’s favorite defense for new assertive behavior in the South China Sea (i.e., “they started it”). If Xi likes big boats, other Southeast Asian nations can at least create conditions in which he cannot lie.
Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.