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China uses civilian ships to expand the capability and reach of the navy

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BANGKOK — A Chinese research vessel loaded with surveillance gear berthed in a port in Sri Lanka. For months at a time, hundreds of fishing boats anchored amid disputed islands in the South China Sea. And ocean-going ferries, which are designed to be able to transport both heavy loads of people and cars.

All of them appear to be civilian vessels, but analysts and nervous regional governments claim they are a part of Beijing’s little-known Chinese civil-military fusion policy, which strengthens Beijing’s maritime capabilities.

China’s navy, which already has the most ships in the world, is swiftly building more vessels as part of a larger military buildup. At least five new destroyers are on the way, and it debuted its first aircraft carrier that was planned and built domestically in June.

Beijing is attempting to have a bigger impact in the area, which is why there is a buildup. In order to support its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the U.S. and its allies have contested, it is stepping up military operations surrounding Taiwan, negotiating new security arrangements with Pacific islands, and creating man-made islands in disputed waters.

China is able to utilise ostensibly civilian vessels that are plainly state directed and state funded to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbours, he claimed, and then credibly deny that the state is to blame.

China has been using civilian fishing trawlers for military purposes for many years, but recently there has been a significant increase thanks to the establishment of a “Spratly Backbone Fleet” funded by a government subsidy programme started by President Xi Jinping that, among other things, helps pay for the construction of new ships.

After China developed port facilities on the man-made islands it created in the Spratlys a few years ago, Poling claimed that those ships “mostly appeared virtually overnight.”

Currently, he added, between 300 and 400 warships are stationed there at any given moment.

The Spratly Islands, which are estimated to have undeveloped natural gas and oil reserves and are situated in a productive fishing area and significant shipping passage, are also the subject of claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other nations.

According to Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines‘ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, the Chinese ships, however, discourage other trawlers from fishing in the region and have been gradually displacing them from the fishing grounds. Governments are powerless to stop this, he added.

The navies’ ships are unable to deal with them since they are apparently civilian fishing vessels, he said, for fear of China accusing the Philippines of inciting a conflict and employing force against civilians. They “profit from perceived ‘grey zones’ below the threshold for inducing a self-defense response.”

A wooden-hulled Filipino boat with a steel hull was rammed and sunk in 2019 northeast of the Spratly Islands by a steel Chinese trawler, leaving its crew behind to be later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat. Despite the Philippines’ diplomatic protest, China claimed the incident was a “accidental collision” and denied that it was planned.

According to a November research co-authored by Poling based on an investigation of official Chinese publications, satellite data, and other sources, China has about 200 additional vessels as part of a professional marine militia in addition to the 800 to 1,000 commercial fishing boats in the Spratly fleet.

According to Poling, the professional militia is utilised for more aggressive actions like harassing foreign oil and gas operations since it is better equipped, has trained crews, and is directly controlled by the state.
China’s employment of civilian vessels in a fight would make the rules of engagement more difficult, he claimed.

You shouldn’t regard every Chinese fishing boat as though it were an armed combatant, but some of them very well might be, according to Poling.

According to Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst with the defence intelligence firm Janes, China has also started sending civilian research vessels to perform military-related operations in regions where the navy is unable to operate without drawing retaliation.

He stated, alluding to the common colour of military ships, “If you deploy grey hull vessels, your adversary may also deploy a grey hull vessel as a reciprocal action, so that makes it more risky for everyone.” China has therefore been deploying white hull warships to enhance its presence without aggravating the situation in order to avert this.

The export of secret technology to China for military purposes is also heavily restricted by Western export laws, which China is able to get around by creating these civilian ships, despite the fact that they are “military in all but name,” according to Rahmat.

According to the Chinese state-run Global Times, one such ship that can launch aerial, surface, and underwater drones “to carry out marine scientific study” is the autonomously piloted Zhu Hai Yun.

The ship, which finished its first autonomous sea testing in June, could also produce maps of the South China Sea’s bottom for use by the military, particularly crucial submarine passages near Taiwan, according to Rahmat.

China has been stepping up its submarine patrols as a deterrence, and to make sure it can accomplish this, he said, “it has to study the underwater landscape.”

When China attempted to dock the Yuan Wang 5 for refuelling in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, not far from India’s southeast coast, at a time when New Delhi was prepared to test a new missile, New Delhi’s tactics angered regional foe India last month.

The ship has sensors that can follow satellites and is designed as a scientific research vessel, but the same tools can also be used to acquire information about missile launches.

India initially objected to Sri Lanka allowing the ship to dock due to Sri Lanka’s economic woes and dependence on Indian help.

China, however, is in charge of running the Hambantota Port because it was given a 99-year lease on the establishment after Sri Lanka stopped making loan payments in 2017. The Sri Lankan government reversed course and permitted the Yuan Wang 5 to dock from August 16 to August 22 following high-level discussions with Beijing.

India successfully tested a new surface-to-air missile on August 23 that is intended to protect a ship against close-range aerial dangers.

Rahmat remarked, “I think the launch was postponed until the Chinese spy ship was gone.
According to Mike Dahm, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer who has written on the subject for the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, China hasn’t tried to hide its military use of civilian ocean-going ferries, which have to meet defence standards and can carry military vehicles like tanks since 2016.

Videos on state television that were expertly produced and openly stated they were testing “how to employ civilian transportation resources to fulfil military missions” showed trainloads of military vehicles and men boarding the vessels and sailing out to sea. The most recent of these exercises was completed early this month.

This fits with the government of China’s narrative that the populace is assisting with national security and could be an attempt to scare Taiwan, which China claims as its own and hasn’t ruled out trying to annex by force, according to Dahm.

The quantity of troops required to cross the Taiwan Strait 160 kilometres (100 miles) for a potential beach landing on the island would require amphibious vehicles, and the ferries may serve as a temporary solution should a crisis force China to consider an invasion, according to Rahmat.

Additionally, Dahm suggested that China might not want to incur the costs associated with assembling and sustaining a “large amphibious navy” for an extended length of time.

Military ferries provide port-to-port transportation, whereas military amphibious vessels are designed to land troops and vehicles on a beach. As a result, Dahm argued, they would only be useful if China could seize Taiwanese ports in a usable state.

However, Dahm warned that in a crisis, the People’s Liberation Army of China would try a risky gambit like unloading amphibious vehicles from ferries at sea or utilizing floating causeways.

He stated that there was always a chance that the PLA would choose to engage in a risky operation against Taiwan that could result in the loss of numerous civilian ships.

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