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Maritime Militia in the South China Sea

Shepherds of the South Seas

Shepherds of the South Seas

Ryan D. Martinson

Survival 24 May 2016

Citation: Ryan D. Martinson (2016) Shepherds of the South Seas, Survival, 58:3, 187-212, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2016.1186987


On 21 July 2014, a Chinese law-enforcement ship, YZ 32501, arrived at its home port in Nantong, Jiangsu. As its crew disembarked, they were received by a senior officer from the China Coast Guard, who had travelled from Shanghai for the event. He thanked them for their 80 days of ‘continuous combat’ in the South China Sea.

Eighty days was a long deployment for a ship of this size (just 500 tonnes). Indeed, the vessel had no obvious mandate to operate in the South China Sea: its primary mission is to manage fisheries in areas under the jurisdiction of Jiangsu province, far to the north. But it had been urgently pressed into action in remote waters – and not to protect fish.During its weeks in the South China Sea, YZ 32501 conducted a type of operation called huhang, or ‘escort’. Traditionally, escort missions are performed by naval forces. British, Canadian and American surface combatants, for instance, escorted merchant ships across the North Atlantic during the Second World War, protecting them from the depredations of German submarines. The warships of numerous countries, including China, shepherd civilian vessels transiting through the Gulf of Aden, protecting them from Somali pirates.

However, unarmed or lightly armed Chinese maritime law-enforcement ships also perform escort missions. Their flocks are not vessels using the ocean as an avenue of transportation, but ships and platforms seeking to exploit it as a source of economic wealth. These include Chinese fishing trawlers, seismic-survey ships and, in the case of YZ 32501, a billion-dollar drilling rig named Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY) 981. These operations, which largely take place in the South China Sea, are an integral, but under-studied, part of China’s strategy to advance the country’s position in its maritime disputes.

The huhang in strategic context

China claims jurisdiction over nearly two million square kilometres of maritime space in the South China Sea. Much of this is contested by other states. To advance its position vis-à-vis other claimants, China encourages Chinese civilians to use disputed waters for economic purposes. The function of the huhang is to create a secure environment that enables civilian use of the ocean to take place.

Read the full research paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00396338.2016.1186987 [PDF].


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