A Chinese research vessel full of surveillance equipment docked in a Sri Lankan port. Hundreds of fishing boats remained anchored for months near the South China Sea islands within the disputed area. Also the ferries, which cross the ocean and are made to transport heavy vehicles and people.

They all look like civilian ships, but experts and uneasy regional governments say they are part of a Chinese civil-military fusion strategy to improve maritime capabilities. This strategy is not well hidden by Beijing.

Civilian ships not only add to the total number of vessels, but also perform jobs that the military could hardly do. These include territorial claims, military mapping of the South China Sea seabed and harassment of foreign oil and gas operations.

Territorial claims

China claims the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as its own.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries also claim the Spratly Islands. The Islands are located near a good fishing spot. It is an important shipping route and is thought to have natural gas and oil reserves that haven’t been used yet.

Jay Batongbacal is director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

He said that trawlers from other countries don’t want to fish in the area due to Chinese ships’ presence. They are slowly being pushed out as a result and the governments can’t do much about it.

He explained how the Chinese regime takes advantage of the loopholes. He said, “Because they are ostensibly civilian fishing vessels, navies’ ships are unable to deal with them lest China accuse the Philippines of provoking an incident and using force against civilians.” 

Ridzwan Rahmat is a Singapore-based analyst with the defense intelligence company Janes. China knows that if it deploys military vessels, based on the principle of reciprocity, others will do the same.  

He added, “So to avoid this, China has been deploying white hull vessels — to reinforce its presence without escalating things.”

Gregory Poling is the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. 

According to Poling, in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, China pays commercial trawlers more than they can make by fishing just to drop anchor for a minimum of 280 days a year. The goal is to support Beijing’s claim to the disputed archipelago.

He explains:

“China can take away the sovereignty of its neighbors by using civilian ships that are clearly directed and paid for by the state.”

“But it can deny that the state is to blame.”

Taiwan

According to analyst Rahmat, there are also many rules in the West to sell sensitive technology to China for military use. China gets around these rules by building civilian ships that are military in everything but name.

The Chinese state-run Global Times says that one of these ships is the self-piloted Zhu Hai Yun. This ship can send out airborne, surface, and underwater drones “to do marine scientific research.”

Analyst Rahmat said that the ship, which had its first test at sea on its own in June, could also make a military mapping of the seabed of the South China Sea. This includes important submarine routes around Taiwan.

Indian missile test 

Last month, India was angry with China when it tried to refuel the Yuan Wang 5 in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port. At that time, New Delhi was getting ready to test a new missile, and the Sri Lankan port is close to India’s southeast coast.

The new surface-to-air missile testing had to be delayed but it was successfully carried out on August 23.

Sri Lanka was in the middle of an economic crisis and relied heavily on help from India. At first it didn’t let the ship dock because India was worried about it.

But China runs the Hambantota Port. After Sri Lanka stopped paying back loans in 2017, China was given a 99-year lease on the facility, which was built with Chinese money. After talks with Beijing at a high level, Sri Lankan officials changed their minds and let the Yuan Wang 5 dock from August 16 to August 22.

Analyst Rahmat said, “I suspect the launch was delayed until the Chinese spy ship was gone.”

Officially, the Chinese ship is a scientific research vessel. It has sensors that can be used to track satellites, but the same equipment can also be used to track a missile launch.

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