SOUTH CHINA SEA disputes have led to tense military stand-offs between the US and Chinese navies, but Beijing is gaming long-accepted rules of engagement by sending a civilian militia to harass rival ships. These civilian vessels cannot be targeted by military ships.
The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) are linked to and backed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Navy, and have proved to be an aggravating presence in the South China Sea. The militia group uses the status of ‘civilian vessel’ to venture into contested areas and mount challenges to rival navies, including Vietnam and the Philippines. The group target countries who have rival sovereignty claims over island clusters and shipping lanes in the South China Sea.
But due to their status as a civilian vessel, official militaries are unable to use force to deter them.
The militia was involved in the harassment of Vietnamese survey ships in 2011 and the Chinese oil rig deadlock in 2014 when Vietnam’s economic exclusion zone was encroached on by Beijing’s oil vessel.
According to a 2019 US Defense Intelligence Agency report, the PAFMM “plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting.”
Unsurprisingly, the actions of the militia on behalf of the Chinese military subvert international law, leading to increased anger between Beijing and its other Asian neighbours.
China’s militarisation of the region has been unrelenting, culminating in the emergence of huge island fortresses in the Spratly Islands, of which Vietnam and the Philippines have also staked claims over.
A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate the developments on military bases have been.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which the newspaper said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands
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Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multi-storey buildings China has built on reefs.
The moving of its aircraft carriers airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”
The bases also appear to boast sophisticated technology and developed resources, with communication antennae, underground petrol, oil and lubricant storage tanks and control towers.
Despite the massive statement of intent from Beijing, the US has not let up on its challenges to China’s audacious claims, sending warships through the Paracel Islands in November.
China’s military said: “We urge the US to stop these provocative actions to avoid any unforeseeable accidents.
The South China Sea is host to lucrative shipping lanes and trading ports, provoking President Xi Jinping to enforce a controversial Nine-Dash Line demarcation. It marks an area which China deems to be its territory.
The demarcation enforces a claim over all of the island clusters in the region and 90 percent of the South China Sea as a whole, but is deemed illegal by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).