Intelligence analysts have concluded that many of the Chinese fishing ships involved in confrontations with non-Chinese fishing ships and local coast guard or naval police never seem to catch any fish. It turns out that these fish-free fishing ships are being paid by the Chinese government to be pests and professional victims of oppression by other nations with claims on the South China Sea. These fishing boats do fish, but not while being paid by their government for what amounts to paramilitary duties.
Since 2010 China has increasingly used a growing fleet of civilian fishing vessels to assert their claims on much of the South China Seas. These unarmed ships are used, usually in groups, to block the moment of unwelcome foreign commercial or military ships. Sometimes these fishing ships are seized by the coast guards of other nations and the crews held for months until the Chinese government can arrange a release. This usually happens after China agrees to pay a large “fine” and threatening violent retaliation if the Chinese fishermen were not released.
It turns out that China has been building and expanding this naval militia for over a decade. This began with an older program that provided adventurous fishing captains with subsidies for building new fishing boats and assurances that the navy would assist Chinese fishermen in gaining access to foreign fishing areas and exclusive use of fishing grounds in international waters. There appear to be over a hundred civilian ships (mostly ocean going fishing trawlers) associated with this militia program, which openly functions as a government supported organization back in China and has headquarters in southern China. This arrangement evolved into some of these high-seas fishing ships being paid (about $10,000 a month) to go on voyages, usually to the South China Sea, to act as muscle to establish Chinese claims to areas long acknowledged as non-Chinese. A growing number (nearly 30) of these fishing ships are now spending a third to half their time on militia duties. It was eventually noted that the same fishing ships, often with the same crews, were showing up in these confrontations. Now these paramilitary fishing ships are being tracked more diligently and that was how their lack of fishing activity was detected.
Most Chinese commercial ships, particularly freighters and ocean-going fishing ships, are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. This arrangement is not unusual as it is an ancient practice still used in many parts of the world. But the Chinese commercial naval militia ships are expected to collect intelligence and sometimes even risk damage and injuries by using their ships to block the movement of foreign ships (including warships). In return the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance if Chinese commercial ships get in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should
An example of this occurred in March 2016 when an Argentinian coast guard ship sank a Chinese trawler that was illegally fishing in Argentinian waters. The coast guard rescued five of the crew, including the captain and arrested them. China complained but did nothing else. In fact, within weeks China publicly reaffirmed its growing economic and diplomatic ties with Argentina. Meanwhile the owners of the lost fishing trawler will be quietly compensated.
This sort of illegal fishing is a worldwide problem and Chinese trawlers are probably the biggest offenders. In waters closer to China there will often be Chinese warships near areas where Chinese trawlers fish illegally. This sometimes becomes a problem as Chinese warships will often try to rescue Chinese trawlers seized for illegal fishing. This doesn’t always work but it sets a scary precedent. This has happened several times in Indonesian waters, even in areas where China does not dispute ownership. China justifies their armed intervention because the Chinese trawlers were in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”