Unmasking China’s Maritime Militia
By Zachary Haver
May 17, 2021
China has long denied that it uses maritime militia forces to assert its maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, often describing the Chinese vessels clustered around disputed reefs and islets as just fishing boats.
But the paper trail left by the Chinese bureaucracy tells a different story.
Radio Free Asia analyzed bidding documents, corporate records, and other official data in an effort to shed new light on the maritime militia belonging to Sansha City, a municipality under Hainan province that administers China’s claims in the South China Sea from its headquarters on Woody Island in the Paracels.
RFA found that the state-owned fishing company in charge of Sansha City’s maritime militia fleet has managed projects involving classified national security information, a strong indicator that the company’s ships are engaged in more than just fishing.
In addition to tracking the fleet owned by this company, RFA also uncovered evidence that one of its ships was used to test an experimental command and communications system built with foreign technology, which likely transformed the vessel into a mobile communications and surveillance platform capable of transmitting intelligence back to the authorities on land.
And referencing the corporate records of fishermen legally registered in Sansha City against Chinese state media reporting on the city’s militia, RFA further verified that numerous "fishermen" living in Sansha are actually militiamen responsible for guarding China’s outposts.
China’s maritime militia has been in the news. The presence of numerous maritime militia ships at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands in late March set off a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Manila and prompted widespread international criticism of China, despite its assertion that these were just fishing vessels sheltering from poor weather.
“Recently, some Chinese fishing vessels take shelter near Niu'e Jiao [Whitsun Reef] due to rough sea conditions,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines. “It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged,” the spokesperson stated.
Now, RFA is taking a step further to shed light on the true nature of China’s maritime militia, pulling back the curtain on the procurements, fleet, and personnel of this shadowy paramilitary force.
Sansha City established its new maritime militia in 2013 on the basis of the original Paracel Islands militia. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hainan Province Sansha Garrison on Woody Island took charge of training and commanding this new force, according to numerous reports in Chinese state media.
By July 2016, the city’s maritime militia had grown to include over 1,800 militiamen and more than 100 vessels, the Sansha City government reported. At the time, the municipal authorities described this force as playing an “irreplaceable role” in defending China’s maritime claims.
China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea overlap with claims from five other states — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei — and are a source of significant tension in the region.
According to a 2015 article authored by Sansha Garrison Commander Cai Xihong in the PLA-run magazine National Defense, the city created Sansha City Fisheries Development Co, Ltd. to manage the militia’s new fleet of steel-hulled ships. Corporate records confirm that Sansha established this new municipal state-owned enterprise in February 2015.
Sansha City Fisheries Development regularly invites other companies to bid on contracts to supply goods and services to the company. RFA found two such projects from 2017 with either “classified information systems integration” or “state secrets protection” credentials requirements for the third-party supplier. These security qualifications are typically reserved for companies and other entities working on classified projects for the PLA or the Chinese government, which suggests that Sansha City Fisheries Development is indeed the civilian front for a paramilitary force.
In late 2017, Sansha City Fisheries Development hired Xi’an Jiangong Construction Tendering Co., Ltd. to manage the bids for a “fishing boat hull underwater cleaning project” worth 5,628,640 yuan ($804,000). One announcement published by Xi’an Jiangong Construction Tendering during the bidding process states that the project “involves national security and secrets” and another specifies that the third-party supplier must have a “state secrets protection” qualification.
And earlier in 2017, Sansha City Fisheries Development tendered bids for a “special equipment” contract worth 63,710,000 yuan ($9,101,400) for an “SX command system.” According to the tendering announcement, the third-party supplier needed to have a “classified information systems integration first-class credential” or a “national third-level or higher secrets protection qualification.” The former covers the development, construction, and operation of classified information systems at the top-secret level; the latter covers weapons and equipment research and development projects at the lowest classification level, Chinese regulations say.
The company that won the “SX command system” contract is Space Star Technology Co., Ltd., also known as the CASC 5th Academy 503rd Research Institute, a subsidiary of the state-owned defense contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Though the technical details of the “SX command system” remain unclear, Space Star Technology’s website and contracts reveal a range of comparable capabilities, including military intelligence equipment as well as maritime communications and command systems. One specific example is a South China Sea monitoring system through which law enforcement ships and fishing boats from Guangdong province can collect information and transmit it back to a command center on land in support of the defense of China’s maritime claims.
A suspicious fleet
In addition to digging up these classified projects, RFA found evidence confirming that Sansha City Fisheries Development manages a fleet of steel-hulled ships belonging to Sansha City’s maritime militia.
Each of the vessels in this fleet operates under the name of “Qiongsanshayu” followed by a string of numbers. As per Chinese naming conventions, “Qiong” indicates that the ships fall under the jurisdiction of Hainan province, “sansha” conveys that they belong to Sansha City, and “yu” marks them as ostensible fishing vessels.
A Chinese government document that RFA reviewed explicitly describes one of these “Qiongsanshayu” vessels as belonging to Sansha City Fisheries Development.
Using the automatic identification system (AIS) data from the MarineTraffic ship-tracking platform, RFA identified 40 vessels operating under the name of “Qiongsanshayu” whose behavior reveals ties to Sansha City Fisheries Development.
Over the past year, each of these 40 vessels has operated from at least one of three ports on the Hainan mainland: Sanya Yazhou, Wenchang Qinglan, and Danzhou Baimajiang.
According to Chinese government land-use records, Sansha City Fisheries Development has long-term rights to space at each port. And bidding records show that the company has been actively developing its facilities at all three ports.
During 2020, 16 of the 40 “Qiongsanshayu” ships sailed to a shipyard owned by Zhanjiang Haisheng Shipbuilding Co., Ltd. in Guangdong province. Sansha City Fisheries Development hired Zhanjiang Haisheng Shipbuilding for a “2019-2020 fishing boat maintenance project” in early 2019, bidding records show.
Satellite imagery confirms the AIS data gathered by RFA, revealing organized rows of matching 60-meter-long steel-hulled fishing vessels at Sanya Yazhou, Wenchang Qinglan, Danzhou Baimajiang, and the Zhanjiang Haisheng Shipbuilding shipyard.
A proposal submitted to the Hainan authorities in 2015 suggests that Sansha’s militia fleet has at least 84 vessels.
Beyond Sansha Garrison Commander Cai Xihong’s admission that Sansha City Fisheries Development manages the city’s militia steel-hulled fleet, several pieces of evidence connect the “Qiongsanshayu” fleet and its facilities to Sansha City’s maritime militia.
Procurement records from the Sansha Garrison — which is responsible for training and commanding Sansha’s maritime militia — reveals the presence of dedicated “militia bases” with training facilities near both the Sanya Yazhou and Danzhou Baimajiang ports. A 2016 report in the PLA-run paper China Defense News indicates that the Sansha Garrison uses militia bases on the Hainan mainland to train militiamen in navigation, communications, and other skills.
Ships resembling the “Qiongsanshayu” vessels also feature in a music video produced by the Sansha Garrison, called “Song of the Sansha Maritime Militia,” which depicts the city’s maritime militia training with weapons, performing surveillance, carrying out boarding operations, and engaging in other such activities.
According to recruitment paperwork from 2015, Sansha City Fisheries Development has prioritized hiring PLA veterans to crew its ships. In fact, in 2019 the Hainan Department of Veterans Affairs recognized the company as a “model unit” for PLA veterans.
Using AIS data and satellite imagery, RFA tracked 18 different “Qiongsanshayu” vessels carrying out deployments in the South China Sea over the last year. These include deployments alongside the China Coast Guard (CCG) to Scarborough Shoal in April 2021 by the Qiongsanshayu 00402 and the Qiongsanshayu 00317, which sailed out together from Danzhou Baimajiang in March. China uses CCG and militia vessels to maintain a continuous presence at Scarborough Shoal, which it has effectively controlled since a standoff with the Philippines in 2012. According to the Philippine government, the CCG harassed the Philippine Coast Guard near Scarborough Shoal on April 24 and 25.
More recently, a group of at least nine ships from the “Qiongsanshayu” fleet departed from the Sanya Yazhou, Wenchang Qinglan, and Danzhou Baimajiang ports on April 23, reaching the Spratly Islands by around April 25. This group included “Qiongsanshayu” vessels numbered 00206, 00208, 00212, 00214, 00223, 00227, 00228, 00232, and 00401.
Vessels from the “Qiongsanshayu” fleet also participated in the Haiyang Dizhi 8 standoff between Vietnam and China near Vanguard Bank in 2019, have carried out joint rescue operations with the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet, and have participated in joint exercises with Sansha City’s local maritime law enforcement force, according to AIS data, Chinese government bulletins, and other such sources.
Experimental systems and foreign technology
Some of the communications technology installed on ships in the “Qiongsanshayu” fleet also indicate that they are more than just ordinary fishing boats.
The Hainan Communications Administration recently led a project to test a shipborne “emergency satellite command and communications” system for maritime law enforcement, fishing, and emergency management in the South China Sea, according to a February 2018 environmental impact assessment.
The ultimate goal of this project was to build satellite links between shipborne systems, ground communications networks, and an emergency command center, effectively extending flows of information to and from distant areas of the contested South China Sea.
With approval from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, this experimental system was to be installed on the Qiongsanshayu 00209 and one of Sansha City’s supply ships, the Qiongsha 3. It included new hardware and software to realize localized mobile communications coverage, voice communications, video surveillance, data transmission, and other capabilities.
The environmental impact assessment states that the Qiongsanshayu 00209 belongs to Sansha City Fisheries Development, is 58.5 meters long and 9.2 meters wide, and has a 20-person crew. It implies that the Qiongsanshayu is based at Wenchang Qinglan, providing a picture of the ship moored at port.
This is not the only case of ostensibly civilian vessels being equipped with high-end surveillance and communications technology. RFA has reported that Sansha City is installing similar systems on its Sansha 1 and Sansha 2 supply ships for the explicit purpose of tracking vessels from the United States, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Taiwan.
The experimental system on the Qiongsanshayu 00209 even uses foreign satellite technology originating with companies from the United States, South Korea, and Japan, the 2018 environmental impact assessment shows.
The technology includes a KNS-Z12 satellite antenna from KNS Inc., a South Korean company; a POB-KUS100 upconverter from Wavestream, a U.S. company; a NJR2836U low-noise block downconverter from Japan Radio Company, a Japanese company; and a CDD 562AL satellite modem, a CDM 570A/L satellite modem, a CDM 625A satellite modem, and a CRS 170A switch from Comtech EF Data, a U.S. company.
Contracting records show that both Wavestream and Comtech EF Data are U.S. defense contractors, and the website of Comtech EF Data claims that the company has worked on numerous programs for clients like the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Marines.
That means satellite communications technology from U.S. defense contractors might be supporting the operations of Sansha City’s maritime militia in the South China Sea.
This is not the first time China has obtained foreign technology for use in South China Sea. A recent report by RFA revealed that Sansha City has acquired over $930,000 of foreign hardware, equipment, software, and materials. And in a separate investigation, this reporter found that Sansha’s local maritime law enforcement force is also using satellite communications technology from a U.S. defense contractor.
RFA also uncovered clear evidence of overlap between the fishermen living on islands and reefs occupied by China and the maritime militia personnel charged with guarding those features.
RFA compared Chinese state media reporting on Sansha’s maritime militia to the corporate records associated with 106 small-scale “aquatic product and fishing businesses” registered in Sansha as well as several fishing cooperatives registered in the city.
In total, RFA found 13 members of Sansha City’s maritime militia who appear to run “aquatic product and fishing businesses” or are listed as staff for one of the city’s fishing cooperatives. Nine of these militiamen are associated with both an “aquatic product and fishing business” and a fishing cooperative.
These individuals include 10 militiamen of unspecific rank, one militia squad leader, one militia platoon sergeant, and one militia company commander, each located on one of five features in the Paracel Islands, namely Woody Island, Yagong Island, Robert Island, Observation Bank, and Tree Island, according to Chinese state media.
Of the “aquatic product and fishing businesses” run by militiamen, all are registered to addresses in residential areas used by Chinese fishermen on Woody Island, Yagong Island, Robert Island, Observation Bank, and Tree Island.
The registered address of each small-scale fishing company aligns with the reported location of its associated militiaman, such as the “aquatic product and fishing business” registered to Robert Island by Chen Daming, who Xinhua News describes as a Robert Island-based militiaman.
These militiamen are likely fishermen who received military training.
In a proposal published in 2014, Sansha City’s delegation to the Hainan Province People’s Congress admitted that the city was training fishermen to guard the islands and reefs within the city’s jurisdiction. The proposal further explained that “regardless of whether they are fishermen operating in distant seas or fishermen engaged in aquaculture or other activities, they can all become well-trained militiamen and receive corresponding subsidies.”
China Defense News described one of the militiamen that RFA identified, Xu Mingwen, as an “old fisherman” now operating radar and video surveillance equipment in Tree Island’s militia post. According to a report by PLA Daily, this post feeds intelligence back to a PLA command center on Woody Island.
Similarly, a 2016 article from China Youth Daily implies that a militiaman verified by RFA, Ye Jun, was a fisherman who received militia training on Yagong Island from the Sansha Garrison, which included boat piloting, engine repair, communications, and wound treatment.
From their postings on the front lines of the South China Sea, these 13 fishermen-turned-militiamen appear to have played an active role in defending China’s claims.
Another militiaman that RFA identified, Woody Island-based Lu Le, was interviewed in 2013 by China National Radio. He said that while navigating the waters of the Paracel Islands in April 2013, he spotted a foreign fishing boat “illegally entering” China’s “territorial waters.” Lu proceeded to report the foreign vessel to the Sansha Garrison, which then mobilized nearby maritime law enforcement ships to chase it away — a clear example of Sansha City’s “military, law enforcement, and civilian joint defense” system in action.
And Xinhua News reports that Yagong Island-based Xu Dezhi, yet another militiaman identified by RFA, was injured in August 2014 while boarding a foreign fishing boat. According to Xinhua, Xu was out fishing when he discovered the foreign vessel. He proceeded to board the fishing boat and cut his wrist during the ensuing fight with the boat’s crew.
RFA also tracked down Observation Bank Militia Company Commander Li Linjun, who received a gash to the right arm from a harpoon during a hand-to-hand scuffle after chasing and boarding a foreign fishing boat in July 2015, China Youth Daily reported.
It is no wonder that Sansha City’s party secretary and mayor, Xiao Jie, once described the city’s maritime militia as part of a “Great Wall of Steel” in the South China Sea.
Editing: Kate Beddall, H. Leo Kim, Paul Nelson, Mat Pennington, Imran Vittachi
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