It seems everything old is new again. My (online) colleague Jens Kastner published an important article in Asia Times this week, detailing how Beijing enlists fishermen as an arm of its maritime strategy. His story will strike a familiar chord with any U.S. Navy sailor of a certain age. During the Cold War it was hard for an American task force of any consequence to leave port without a Soviet “AGI” in trail. These souped-up fishing trawlers would shadow U.S. task forces, joining up just outside U.S. territorial waters. So ubiquitous were they that naval officers joked about assigning the AGI a station in the formation, letting it follow along – as it would anyway – without obstructing fleet operations.
AGIs were configured not just to cast nets, but to track ship movements, gather electronic intelligence, and observe the tactics, techniques, and procedures by which American fleets transact business in great waters. Few seafaring nations use nonmilitary assets that way. Wielded deftly, though, they can play a vital part in sea power, broadly construed as encompassing not only government but commercial shipping, and not only navy personnel but private mariners. Maritime strategy is about more than navies. It’s about using all implements available to governments – sea- and land-based, public and private – to shape events at sea.
AGIs were mainly passive platforms sent to watch, listen, and report. While intelligence collection is part of Chinese fishing vessels’ job description as well, Beijing entrusts more active duties to these small craft. They can discharge combat missions. Some of them can lay or clear sea mines, for example. Or, as Naval War College professor Peter Dutton put it in another context, the fishing fleet is an unofficial maritime auxiliary that Beijing can deploy to stoke “managed confrontation” with neighbors whose seaborne interests contradict China’s. Kastner portrays it as a stick with which the Chinese government can stir up maritime Asia at opportune moments, whether to solidify its claims to contested islands and seas, appease a restive populace at home, or support a cross-strait offensive against Taiwan.
Japan, the Philippines, and other claimants to waters and soil China considers its historic patrimony constitute special targets for managed confrontation. Fishing boats have been in the thick of such scuffles as the war of words that ensued in 2010 after the Japan Coast Guard apprehended a Chinese fishing boat near the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islets. Fishermen have been at the vanguard of Chinese policy in the ongoing impasse with the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, an atoll west of Luzon. Does Beijing control the whereabouts and actions of fishing boats directly? It’s not entirely clear, and Chinese diplomats aren’t saying. There must be some mix between conscious action and opportunism. While they may or may not exercise operational command over a given boat, Chinese officials can certainly encourage its skipper to ply his trade in disputed water – and respond if he runs into trouble.
If a foreign coast guard or navy tries to shoo Chinese boats away, Beijing gains plausible grounds to act. It can intervene diplomatically on Chinese nationals’ behalf, as in the Senkakus in late 2010. Or nonmilitary maritime services like China Maritime Surveillance can dispatch assets to protect the fishermen, as at Scarborough Shoal. Call it gunboat diplomacy without the guns – or at least without an open display of guns. The People’s Liberation Army is the unseen adjunct to Chinese nautical diplomacy. Military power held in reserve represents an enormous Chinese advantage, especially when the opponent is as completely outmatched as the Philippines.