MANILA - The sinking of a Filipino fishing boat at Reed Bank has raised fears it might be the handiwork of Beijing’s maritime militia, a crucial component of its sea force asserting its sweeping claims over the South China Sea.
The Philippines is no stranger to this flotilla of ordinary-looking but military-trained fishing vessels swarming strategic areas in the vital waterway.
Such boats helped Beijing seize control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 following a tense standoff with Manila’s navy, which had accosted Chinese poachers there.
More recently, hundreds of these vessels were deployed near Pag-asa, reportedly to spy on the ongoing repair of structures on the Philippine-occupied island.
Because “nothing distinguishes” China’s maritime militia from its ordinary fishermen, Manila-based defense analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said this paranaval force was likely behind the Reed Bank incident last June 9.
The Philippine boat was anchored on Reed Bank when a Chinese vessel crashed into it, throwing 22 crewmen at sea where Vietnamese fishermen rescued them hours later.
Philippine authorities said a formal inquiry would determine if the boat was sunk intentionally.
“This is not a simple incident,” said international studies professor Renato De Castro, a national security consultant during the Aquino administration.
“Ordinary fishing vessels wouldn’t dare ram another fishing vessel because it would damage their vessel,” he said, noting that Beijing’s militia boats had reinforced steel hulls specifically designed for such attacks.
Maritime law professor Jay Batongbacal said the Chinese vessel that hit the Philippine boat had the standard design of those belonging to Beijing’s sea militia.
“The only question that remains is whether this particular vessel was actually part of it and undertaking that function at the time the incident happened,” said Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
China’s maritime militia is a “set of mariners and their vessels which are trained, equipped, and organized directly” the People’s Liberation Army’s local military commands, according to Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
“While at sea, these units typically answer to the PLA chain of command, and are certain to do so when activated for missions,” he wrote.
“While most militiamen have civilian jobs, new units are emerging that appear to employ elite forces full-time as militarized professionals.”
Beijing’s maritime militia, the biggest worldwide, is “virtually the only one charged with involvement in sovereignty disputes,” he said.
‘WAR WITHOUT GUN SMOKE’
This militia is the centerpiece of China’s so-called “gray zone” operations in what Erickson and a co-author described as a “war without gun smoke” to push its maritime claim.
Erickson wrote that such operations allowed Beijing to increase its control in the disputed waters “through coercion short of escalation to war.”
“There’s always an element of deniability, De Castro told ABS-CBN News, noting that the Chinese government could also distance itself from the actions of what were made to appear as ordinary fishing boats.
A 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected the basis of Beijing’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea, where $3.3 trillion of the world’s seaborne trade passes.
China ignored the decision, which clarified maritime entitlements, and went on to fortify its 7 artificial islands, and deploy its maritime militia vessels in the disputed waters.
These boats are known to intimidate other vessels such as Washington’s USNS Impeccable surveillance ship in the South China Sea in 2009.
International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe recalled how China’s maritime militia was instrumental in the capture of “the last island held by Vietnam in the Paracel archipelago in the northern reaches of the South China Sea” in 1974.
“They try to avoid using force that might cause injuries or deaths, and thus international accusations of human rights abuses,” he wrote on Asia Times.
“Beijing and its maritime militia have used this restraint by their opponents to their own advantage for 40 years and more.“
Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio earlier warned that the Reed Bank incident "may signal the start of a new ‘gray zone’ offensive by China to drive away Filipino fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea, in the same way that China is driving away Vietnamese fishing vessels in the Paracels."
Carpio called on Filipinos to "take a strong stand against this latest aggressive act of China" and a "strong signal" that another such offensive would sever diplomatic ties.
Manila earlier filed a diplomatic protest and called the attention of the London-based International Maritime Organization to the 22 fishermen "callously abandoned" at sea by the Chinese.
But President Rodrigo Duterte played down the ramming incident as a "simple maritime accident," which was similar to how China had described it.
"The Philippine policy is submissive and not assertive because the Duterte administration sees China as a valuable partner in the protection and enhancement of its political survival and nothing else," Custodio told ABS-CBN News.
Like the Vietnamese, the Philippine government should establish close coordination between its fishermen and maritime agencies "for proper response to crisis situations," he said.