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A New Front In The Narrative ‘War’ Over The South China Sea – Analysis

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A new front has opened up in the contest to control the narrative regarding actions in the South China Sea. This is evidenced by a recent flurry of contested revelations and explanations concerning concentrations of Chinese and Vietnamese fishing vessels in other countries’ waters. Of course many countries’ fishing vessels fish illegally in others’ waters and have done so for many years—some more egregiously than others.  What is new is the allegations that some concentrations of vessels are ‘state controlled’ and have even more nefarious intentions.  Moreover, there are indications that the focus and ‘conclusions’ of some studies may be politically influenced – –  to the extent that they may be considered largely opinion pieces rather than the results of neutral objective analyses.

For some time now, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (AMTI) has been ‘revealing’ and interpreting data regarding concentrations of Chinese fishing vessels near the Philippines occupied Thitu in the Spratlys. Based on its interpretation of a sequence of satellite photos, in late December 2019, AMTI detected nearly 100 Chinese vessels near Thitu. https://amti.csis.org/under-pressure-philippine-construction-paramilitary-response/ It said that most of the Chinese vessels were fishing boats but also included at least one naval frigate and two coast guard vessels. The AMTI alleged that the fishing boats were mostly maritime militia. AMTI’s reasoning was that many vessels had no visible fishing equipment on board and had turned off their automatic identification system transponders (AIS). It then charged that this concentration of militia was intended to intimidate the Philippines to cease construction there.

But Philippines Armed Forces Chief Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said that there were no reports of Chinese ships interfering with the Philippine government’s upgrading of the facilities on [Thitu]. https://globalnation.inquirer.net/173080/afp-chief-chinese-ships-near-pag-asa-island-no-cause-for-worry 

Indeed, the Philippines government has become skeptical of the objectivity of AMTI’s analyses. In August 2017, then Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano scolded those who criticized the presence of Chinese ships near Sandy Cay based on AMTI reports, but did not criticize the presence of US warships in the disputed waters. He said “You have to realize that their [CSIS/AMTI] reason for being is to pursue the interests of the American people.  We have to pursue Philippine interests”. http://.philstar.com/headlines/2017/12/17/1769142/no-new-chinese-activity-scs-cayetano 

A rebuttal of AMTI’s findings appeared in the Global Timeshttp://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1139188.shtml The Chinese authors –a technical expert and a senior academic — accused AMTI of manufacturing a “phantom crisis”. They argued that based on the published satellite images, the Chinese vessels were not “blocking” the Philippines resupply route from Palawan to Thitu as implied in the AMTI report.  Given that China also claims Thitu and nearby Sandy Cay – – and their territorial seas  – –  the authors said that the area was a fishing ground and that the increased number of fishing vessels there was likely a result of the recent ending of the annual China-decreed fishing moratorium, and the greater demand for the then upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. Moreover they postulated that the law enforcement vessels were there to supervise the fishing operations. 

However, the Global Times is a Chinese newspaper that usually provides a Chinese government perspective on international issues.  Given the source and the outlet, this article and its postulations were considered biased by many outside China. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319122963_Fishing_Militia_the_Securitization_of_Fishery_and_the_South_China_Sea_Dispute

But others like Zhang Hongzhou of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies also argued that because of its  ‘base’ on nearby Subi Reef it was understandable that Chinese vessels would anchor nearby regardless of their purpose for being there. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/02/13/bigger-fish-to-fry-than-militias-in-the-south-china-sea/ He suggested that some of these boats may be fishing the reefs for sea cucumbers, giant clams and sea turtles and are thus temporarily anchored there.  He reasoned that because China has made the harvesting of giant clams and sea turtles illegal, these vessels may turn off their AIS while doing so.  Zhang also hypothesized that some of the larger Chinese fishing vessels observed in the vicinity were “support vessels” purchasing catch and selling supplies.  He also suggested that some other vessels may be transiting the area without fishing there in order to qualify for special fishing fuel subsidies for ‘operating’ in the Spratlys.

As if in response to what some considered the unfair targeting of the actions of Chinese fishing vessels, the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) at Peking University also used remote sensing data to allege that many Vietnamese fishing boats were operating illegally in China’s internal and territorial waters – –  and its undisputed EEZ – – around Hainan and the nearby Mainland. https://scspi.pku.edu.cn/analysis/501624.htm Their data purportedly showed that recently there were about 200 Vietnamese fishing vessels in the waters off Hainan’s south and east coast. Vietnamese fishing vessels frequently fish in others’ waters. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3065270/indonesia-detains-illegal-vietnamese-fishing-boats-islands

 But SCSPI also suggested that many of these vessels “could be maritime militia” spying on China’s strategic Yulin naval base. The evidence it cited was the concentrations of Vietnamese vessels offshore of the base and that some changed their status from ‘fishing vessel’ to ‘merchant ship’ on their AIS transponders.

This article stimulated a ‘response’ in the Diplomat by Do Than Hai of Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam which is a leading proponent of Vietnam’s position vis a vis that of China in the South China Sea. https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/did-vietnam-militia-really-swarm-a-china-military-base/  He used different remote sensing data sources to question the SCSPI conclusions.  He found many discrepancies.  He then argued that it was unlikely that the vessels were spying on the Yulin nuclear submarine base because that maritime area is heavily defended by both China’s Navy and Coast Guard, and that if the vessels left their ASI transponders on it would be counterproductive for spying.  This questionable—they could have been intelligence collection vessels disguised as fishing vessels—a tried and true method of Soviet maritime intelligence gathering during the Cold war.

Do Than Hai offered the alternative explanation that the vessels were in transit to or from “authorized port calls for replenishment.” But this begs the question of ‘transit from where to where?’ Based on the location of this concentration, one end of this journey would presumably be in China. It seems odd that China would knowingly facilitate illegal fishing in its EEZ by allowing replenishment of Vietnamese vessels. Moreover this possibility does not explain why some vessels allegedly disguised their nature on their AIS. 

These stark contradictions in data and interpretation are concerning. They raise serious questions regarding the reliability of commercial satellite AIS data versus terrestrial AIS.  But more concerning –as Do says –“data can be manufactured, manipulated and misinterpreted”. The speculative interpretations of these data cast doubt on the objectivity of all of these analyses. At the least, they demonstrate the dangers of drawing conclusions beyond the limits of the data and cry out for a neutral party to sort out the wheat from the chaff. 


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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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