The US has warned China that it will respond to provocative acts by its coast guard and fishing boats in the same way it reacts to the Chinese navy in an effort to curb Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea.
Admiral John Richardson, head of the US navy, said he told his Chinese counterpart, vice-admiral Shen Jinlong, in January that Washington would not treat the coast guard or maritime militia — fishing boats that work with the military — differently from the Chinese navy, because they were being used to advance Beijing’s military ambitions.
“I made it very clear that the US navy will not be coerced and will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all,” Adm Richardson told the Financial Times.
On top of its militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea, Beijing has deployed paramilitary actors. In several incidents involving the US, Vietnam and the Philippines, Chinese fishing boats have rammed vessels, blocked access to lagoons, harassed ships and been involved in the seizing of reefs and shoals.
The maritime militia has been strengthened since 2015, when it created a headquarters in the China-administered Paracel Islands, a disputed area in the South China Sea that is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. It has also received training alongside the Chinese navy and coast guard. In its last annual report on the Chinese military, the Pentagon said the fleet “plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting”.
China has increasingly used the maritime militia because fishing boats are less likely to prompt a military response from the US. But the latest warning significantly raises the stakes for China’s non-navy vessels engaging in aggressive acts.
James Stavridis, a retired US admiral who also served as commander of Nato forces, said Adm Richardson was right to have delivered the tough message to the Chinese.
“It is a warning shot across the bow of China, in effect saying we will not tolerate ‘grey zone’ or ‘hybrid’ operations at sea,” said Mr Stavridis. “A combatant is a combatant is the message, and the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) is in the right place to warn China early and often.”
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank, said: “By injecting greater uncertainty about how the US will respond to China’s grey-zone coercion, the US hopes to deter Chinese destabilising maritime behaviour, including its reliance on coast guard and maritime militia vessels to intimidate its smaller neighbours.”
William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a Singapore-based think-tank, said the maritime militia gave the People’s Liberation Army Navy an “additional military arm” to help enforce Beijing’s stranglehold on the South China Sea. “It’s a clever strategy because the naval ships of the other claimants will think twice before they engage vessels that are technically not armed, not military ships, in a way they would other naval vessels,” he said.
The US warning also affects the Chinese coast guard. Dennis Wilder, a former head of China analysis at the CIA, said President Xi Jinping put the coast guard under the control of the Central Military Commission in 2018.
“By having both the navy and the coast guard under the CMC, it improves in wartime the co-ordination and control of maritime forces,” he said. “As China’s coast guard is heavily armed, it is a logical assumption that it would be incorporated into military plans and operations.”
The US navy has been conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations, whereby it sends warships through disputed waters to prevent a claimant from denying others access in violation of international law.
Analysts have long pushed for a more effective US response to counter China’s mix of military, paramilitary and economic coercive measures.
Andrew Erickson, a maritime militia expert at the US Naval War College, recently called for the US to “deal with China’s sea forces holistically” and state clearly that it expected China’s navy, coast guard and maritime militia to follow international rules. He added that the US had to “accept some friction and force Beijing to choose between de-escalating — the preferred US outcome — or to move up against a US red line that China would prefer to avoid”.
The warning from Adm Richardson comes as the US takes a much tougher stance towards China over everything from commercial and traditional espionage to trade, technology transfer and intellectual property theft.
But some analysts warned that implementing the policy would be challenging. “If the US decides to interpret maritime militia vessels as military, that will lead to increased risk,” said Mr Choong. “With US destroyers in the South China Sea and the continuing Chinese maritime militia operations there, things could go bad very quickly.”
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