BANGKOK — A Chinese science vessel bristling with surveillance equipment docked in a Sri Lankan port. Hundreds of fishing boats anchored for months at a time among disputed islands in the South China Sea. And ocean ferries, built to be able to transport heavy vehicles and large loads of people.
All are ostensibly civilian vessels, but worried experts and regional governments say they are part of a Chinese civil-military fusion strategy, little concealed by Beijing, that is boosting its maritime capabilities.
China’s navy is already the world’s largest by number of ships and has been rapidly building new warships as part of a wider military expansion. She launched her first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier in June, and at least five new destroyers are on the way soon.
The buildup comes as Beijing tries to exert wider influence in the region. It is stepping up its military activities around the self-governing island of Taiwan, seeking new security agreements with Pacific islands, and building artificial islands in disputed waters to fortify its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the United States United and their allies contested.
Civilian ships do more than just increase the raw number of ships, accomplishing tasks that would be difficult for the military to accomplish.
In the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, for example, China is paying commercial trawlers more than they can earn by fishing just to drop anchor for at least 280 days a year to support Beijing’s claim to power. disputed archipelago, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“China is capable of using nominally civilian vessels that are clearly state-run, state-paid to eat away at the sovereignty of its neighbors, but then plausibly deny that the state is responsible,” he said. he declared.
China has used civilian fishing trawlers for military purposes for decades, but dramatically increased their numbers recently with the creation of a ‘Spratly backbone fleet’ under a government subsidy program launched under President Xi Jinping. , which helps to cover the construction of new ships, among which other things.
These vessels “largely appeared almost overnight” after China built port infrastructure a few years ago on the man-made islands it built in the Spratlys that could be used for resupply, said Poling said.
Today, around 300 to 400 ships are deployed there at any given time, he said.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and others also have claims to the Spratly Islands, which lie in a productive fishing ground and an important shipping route, and are thought to hold untapped reserves of natural gas. and petroleum.
But Chinese vessels are deterring other trawlers from fishing in the area and have slowly moved them off the land, with little governments can do, said Jay Batongbacal, who heads the Institute of Maritime Affairs and Human Rights Law. University of the Philippines. Sea.
“Because these are apparently civilian fishing vessels, navy vessels are unable to deal with them lest China accuse the Philippines of causing an incident and using force against civilians,” did he declare. “They take advantage of perceived ‘grey areas’ below the threshold to trigger a self-defense response.”
In a high-profile incident, a Chinese steel trawler in 2019 rammed and sank a Philippine wooden-hulled boat at anchor northeast of the Spratly Islands, abandoning its crew to be later rescued by a boat from Vietnamese peach. Despite a diplomatic protest from the Philippines, China denied the incident was intentional, calling it an “accidental collision”.
In addition to about 800 to 1,000 commercial fishing boats in the Spratly fleet, China has about 200 other vessels that are part of a professional maritime militia, according to a November study co-authored by Poling based on an analysis of reports. Chinese officials, satellite images and other sources.
The professional militia is better equipped, with trained crews and under direct state control, and is used for more aggressive operations such as harassment of foreign oil and gas operations, Poling said.
In the event of a conflict, China’s use of civilian vessels would complicate the rules of engagement, he said.
“You don’t want to treat every Chinese fishing boat as an armed fighter, but, in fact, some of them may well be armed fighters,” Poling said.
China has also deployed civilian research vessels for military-related tasks in areas where its navy could not operate without provoking a response, said Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst for defense intelligence firm Janes. .
“If you deploy gray-hulled ships, your opponent can also deploy a gray-hulled ship as a reciprocal measure, which makes it more dangerous for everyone,” he said, referring to the color. typical of military ships. “So to avoid that, China deployed white-hulled ships – to bolster its presence without making things worse.”
There are also numerous Western export controls prohibiting the sending of sensitive technology to China for military purposes, which China is able to circumvent by building such civilian vessels, even though “in all but name they are military,” Rahmat said.
The autonomously piloted Zhu Hai Yun is said to be one such vessel, capable of launching aerial, surface and underwater drones “to conduct marine scientific research”, according to the Global Times, a Chinese state-run agency.
The ship, which completed its first autonomous sea trial in June, could also create military maps of the South China Sea floor, including important undersea lanes around Taiwan, Rahmat said.
“China has increased its underwater deterrent patrols, and to make sure it can do that, it needs to map the underwater terrain,” he said.
China’s methods drew the ire of regional rival India last month when it sought to moor the Yuan Wang 5 in the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, not far from the south coast. eastern India, to refuel at a time when New Delhi was preparing to test a new missile.
The vessel is officially a scientific research vessel fitted with sensors that can be used to track satellites, but the same equipment can be used to gather data on a missile launch.
Sri Lanka, in the midst of an economic crisis and heavily dependent on aid from India, initially refused to allow the ship to dock due to India’s concerns.
But China operates the port of Hambantota, having secured a 99-year lease on the facility – built with Chinese money – after Sri Lanka defaulted on its loans in 2017. After high-level consultations with Beijing, the Sri Lankan authorities backtracked and allowed the Yuan Wang 5 to dock from August 16 to August 22.
On August 23, India successfully tested its new surface-to-air missile designed to defend a ship against short-range airborne threats.
“I suspect the launch was delayed until the Chinese spy ship left,” Rahmat said.
China hasn’t tried to cover up its military use of civilian ocean ferries, which have had to meet defense standards since 2016 allowing them to accommodate military vehicles like tanks, said Mike Dahm, a navy intelligence officer. retired American who wrote on the subject for the US Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute.
Brilliantly produced state television videos showing trains of military vehicles and troops boarding ships and heading out to sea, openly stating that they are testing “how to use civilian transportation resources to perform military tasks “. The last such exercise ended earlier this month.
It could be intended to intimidate Taiwan, which China claims as its own and hasn’t ruled out trying to take over by force, and also aligns with the Chinese government’s message that the public contributes to national security, Dahm said. .
At present, China does not have enough amphibious craft to transport the necessary number of troops 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait for a possible island landing, and ferries could be a stopgap measure if a crisis prompted China to decide to invade, Rahmat says.
China also might not want to shoulder the expense of building and maintaining a “huge amphibious armada” for an indefinite period, Dahm said.
Military amphibious craft are built to land troops and vehicles on a beach, while ferries provide port-to-port movement, which would mean they would only be effective if China could capture Taiwanese ports in good condition. , Dahm said.
Still, in a crisis, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could take a risky gamble like offloading amphibious vehicles from ferries at sea or using floating causeways, Dahm said.
“There is always the possibility that the PLA could engage in a high-risk operation against Taiwan with the possibility of losing a large number of civilian ships,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this story.