Over the last decade the U.S. Navy has noticed, studied and concluded that China has organized and increasingly used a naval militia that is used to enforce Chinese claims to the South China Sea and support Chinese fishery poaching efforts worldwide. Poaching is very lucrative, earning Chinese poachers over $20 billion a year. Less lucrative but militarily more useful is the growing number of large civilian ferries, especially the RoRo (Roll On, Roll Off) models for a major amphibious operation to seize Taiwan. In the last year Chinese military planners also ran some simulations from the defender’s point-of-view and included the many anti-ship weapons Taiwan and its allies would have available, even after an enemy port had been seized and reinforcements were needed to hold on to it. This is where the ferries and RoRos were essential and the staff exercises found that the civilian vessels were very vulnerable to attack and unexpected bad weather. These problems would, at the very least, render the civilian vessels unable to complete its mission and in some cases the ferries and RoRos would be lost. Arming the civilian ships with some missile-defense systems, along with sailors to operate them, would help, but not solve the problem.
The American concerns about militarized ferries and state-sponsored piracy to plunder foreign fishing grounds have morphed into imaginary militarization of many of the 5,500 Chinese built ships operating worldwide. China has already discovered that the militarized ferries have more limitations than expected. This explains why militarization of ocean-going bulk carriers (of grain and other bulky items) and container ships is not practical, at least on a large and affordable scale. In the West militarized commercial ships are used during wartime and crews are expanded, especially on tankers being used to refuel warships at sea. That requires the installation of additional equipment and the use of sailors, especially helmsman with experience safely maneuvering close enough to warships to transfer fuel. This is harder in the 21st century because large commercial transports are more automated and operated by smaller crews who are insufficient for handling damage control. As the Chinese have already discovered, arming their RoRo ferries is futile because too many of the wartime threats are guided missiles, not nearby warships you can fire small guided missiles at. Putting any weapons on commercial ships is illegal in peacetime, as was discovered over a decade ago when it was attempted to protect commercial ships passing close to the Somali coast and the many pirates operating there. The legal solution was to small teams of armed security personnel boarding the commercial ships before it entered the Somalia danger zone, The armed security team would leave the ship after it was out of range of the pirates. This was a lot more expensive than just putting some rifles aboard commercial ships, a practice that was gradually outlawed since World War II. No one really noticed that until some commercial shipping companies tried to reinstate the practice and discovered most ports they operated in considered loaded firearms for the crew dangerous and prohibited them as cargo.
The thousands of Chinese fishing trawlers are unarmed and trained to operate stealthily and at night to plunder foreign fishing grounds. Over the last decade many nations that were losing lots of fish and other valuable aquatic species to Chinese poachers ordered their navy and coast guard ships to seek out and capture or sink the poachers. This led the Chinese to send one or more armed coast guard ships with poaching fleets headed for hostile waters, to provide some defense from local warships. The Chinese armed ships weren’t there to fight but to delay pursuers when Chinese trawlers were discovered while stealing fish. The trawler crews had trained for this and would cut loose their nets and head for international waters as quickly as they could. Some were caught and often sunk after the crew was arrested. In response to that the Chinese would send lawyers and publicists to portray the poachers as victims. China would also offer cash or, income cases, threats of a trade war. This did not work on many distant nations, especially in South America. Some nearby victims, like Indonesia, instead became more aggressive in sinking Chinese trawlers and firing on escorting Chinese warships. China declared itself the victims and sent their seafood pirates to less-hostile waters.
Foreign intelligence analysts also discovered that many of the Chinese fishing ships involved in confrontations with foreign fishing ships and local coast guard or naval police never seem to catch any fish. It turned out that these fish-free fishing ships were being paid by the Chinese government to be pests and professional victims of oppression by other nations with claims on the South China Sea. These fishing boats do sometimes fish, but not while being paid by their government for what amounts to paramilitary duties.
This tactic was frequently used against the Philippines, a major victim of Chinese claims on the South China Sea. The Philippines put Chinese claims before an international court that rules on such matters. The court found China was acting illegally. China ignored the ruling and continued using fishing boats and naval militia (fishing boats not currently equipped for fishing) to show up at Filipino fishing grounds. Between late 2020 and early 2021 Julian Felipe Reef was occupied by a growing number (eventually more than 200) of Chinese naval militia fishing boats inside the reef. Most of the Chinese trawlers were lashed together in groups of five to twenty boats that formed a pattern preventing real fishing boats from operating inside the reef. Most fishing boats in the South China Sea are trawler type boats. These boats deploy their nets and then move through an area containing a lot of fish and haul their catch on board and into a refrigerated compartment. Many of the Chinese militia boats are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities onboard to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30.
The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 when there were only 13. Now there are over 2,400 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean-going fishing boats. Those subsidies were gradually withdrawn as the number of larger (than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters.
China claimed all the Chinese fishing boats inside Julian Felipe Reef were taking shelter from bad weather. This is often the case with reefs in the South China Sea, but there was no correlation between the presence of Chinese boats inside the reef and the actual weather in the area. The Chinese claims don’t stand up to close scrutiny. With so many cellphone videos and high-res images from aircraft and warships available, all China can do is keep lying and do it aggressively and with assurance that no one will do much about it.
China’s naval militia has been a major factor in Chinese intimidation operations in the South China Sea. This militia has been around since the 1950s but never used this aggressively. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically.
Since 2015 China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct a blockage of bits of land in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to block supplies and force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so that China can take possession. The Chinese fishermen don’t mind the militia work, seeing it as something of a paid vacation with overtones of patriotic service to the state. The militia boats are not true volunteers. When the government “requests” a Chinese fishing boat work for the militia the boat owner complies. Sometimes boat owners grumble when they are called up during a prime fishing season, but refusal is not an option and they make the best of it.
The Philippines appears to get most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea because the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. According to international law, the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers. The Philippines is also the weakest (in military terms) nation China is seizing territory from and their mutual defense treaty with the United States is not always adequate to deal with the Chinese tactics. Moreover, the American government can change readily every four years because of presidential elections. The current U.S. president is seen as less steadfast in dealing with China. So far that has not been the case, but the new American government has only been in power since January 2021.
Most Chinese commercial ships, particularly freighters and ocean-going fishing ships, are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. This arrangement is not unusual as it is an ancient practice still used in many parts of the world. But the Chinese commercial naval militia ships are expected to collect intelligence and sometimes even risk damage and injuries by using their ships to block the movement of foreign ships (including warships). In return the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance if Chinese commercial ships get in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should.
Illegal fishing is a worldwide problem and Chinese trawlers are the biggest offenders. Most of the 5,500 Chinese built and operated commercial ships are much larger and usually operate legally. Some get involved, with government permission or under government orders, in smuggling. This usually involves transporting oil from embargoed nations like Iran. The oil is often transferred to a tanker operating legally. This is done at night and this has increasingly been spotted and hi-res video taken by American or allied nation maritime patrol aircraft. These videos make it possible to identify the ships involved and the Chinese deny any official involvement and don’t punish the Chinese crews and shipping companies involved.