The UN arbitration court will soon rule on the case, brought by the Philippines against China, over who owns the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea (SCS). It is all but certain that China will reject the ruling, no matter what it says, because Beijing has already decided that the SCS is a Chinese lake, subject to its “indisputable sovereignty.” However, the issue of Chinese hegemony in the SCS is less and less about economics – oil and gas reserves, or fishing rights – and increasingly about the militarization of this body of water. The South China Sea is becoming, quite simply, a key defensive zone for China.
‘Little blue men’
It’s become increasingly clear that China intends to make the SCS a China-only military operating area. This can be seen in a number of recent actions by the Chinese. The first of these is the ratcheting up of activities by China’s “militarized fisherman,” the so-called “little blue men” who go out in the SCS and clash with ships from other nations, both commercial and naval. These are not simply private fishermen engaged in “patriotic activities.” On the contrary, according to researchers at the US Naval War College (NWC) with whom I recently spoke, these vessels are in actuality a maritime militia subsidized by Beijing and effectively a part-time military organization.
These boats are sent out to collect intelligence, show the flag, and promote sovereignty claims. Moreover, they are not above creating minor clashes with other ships, as they provide Chinese naval and paramilitary forces, particularly the Chinese Coast Guard with a pretext (protecting Chinese “civilians”) to intervene and thereby bolster China’s military presence in the SCS. While this maritime militia has been around for decades, researchers at the NWC point that they have become a much more active and aggressive force, and one that has a growing strategic purpose in what has been dubbed the “3Ds” of China’s SCS strategy: declare (Chinese claims), deny (other countries’ claims), and defend (those claims).