'Dangerous and provocative': China unleashes 'maritime militia'

·Assistant News Editor
·3-min read

A fleet of Chinese maritime militia vessels are threatening to destabilise an increasingly volatile region in the South China Sea, a US think tank has warned.

For years the Asian superpower has been funding the expansion of the militia to assert its claims in the contested seas.

The Washington DC based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has sought to "pull back the curtain" on the country's growing militia in a new report

"Since completing the construction of its artificial island outposts in the Spratly Islands in 2016, China has shifted its focus toward asserting control over peacetime activity across the South China Sea," the report states.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea. Source: AP
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea. Source: AP

That has included using fishing vessels to antagonise and intimidate rival nations in contested waters. 

"A key component of this shift has been the expansion of China’s maritime militia—a force of vessels ostensibly engaged in commercial fishing but which in fact operate alongside Chinese law enforcement and military to achieve Chinese political objectives in disputed waters."

CSIS believes the actions of China pose a major challenge to those "interested in maintaining a maritime order rooted in international law".

The think tank relied on open-source Chinese language research, remote sensing data, and maritime patrols to paint a picture of the growing size and role of China's maritime militia. 

"The militia as currently constituted in the South China Sea operates from a string of 10 ports in China’s Guangdong and Hainan Provinces. Remote sensing data indicates that roughly 300 militia vessels are operating in the Spratly Islands on any given day," the report says. 

Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea on March 27, 2021. Source: AP
Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea on March 27, 2021. Source: AP

US slams China's 'dangerous, provocative' actions

An ongoing dispute between China and the Phillipines has continued to raise tensions in the region.

Nearly 100 militia boats deployed near Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in 2018. The two countries clashed again earlier this year when approximately 200 gathered at unoccupied Whitsun Reef.

The latest incident has prompted the White House to condemn China's ongoing aggression.  

The United States on Friday (local time) called Chinese actions in using water cannon against Philippine resupply boats in the South China Sea "dangerous, provocative, and unjustified," and warned that an armed attack on Philippine vessels would invoke US mutual defence commitments.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington stood by its treaty ally the Philippines amid an "escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability."

Beijing "should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone," he said in a statement.

"The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defence commitments," Price said.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed American defence commitments to Manila and pledged to "stand with our Philippine allies" in a call on Friday with his counterpart in the Philippines, Delfin Lorenzana.

"They agreed on the vital importance of peace and stability in the South China Sea and pledged to stay in close contact in the coming days," the Pentagon said in a statement.

On Thursday, the Philippines condemned "in strongest terms" actions of three Chinese coast guard vessels that it said blocked and used water cannon on resupply boats headed toward a Philippine-occupied atoll in the South China Sea.

with Reuters

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