BAIMAJING (Hainan) • The fishing fleet based in this tiny Chinese port town on Hainan island is getting everything from military training and subsidies to even fuel and ice as Beijing creates an increasingly sophisticated fishing militia to sail in the disputed South China Sea.
The training includes exercises at sea and requests to fishermen to gather information on foreign vessels, said provincial government officials, regional diplomats and fishing companies.
"The maritime militia is expanding because of the country's need for it, and because of the desire of the fishermen to engage in national service, protecting our country's interests," said an adviser to the Hainan government who did not want to be named.
But the fishing militia also raises the risk of conflict with foreign navies in the strategic waterway through which US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) of trade passes each year, diplomats and naval experts said.
The city-level branches of the People's Armed Forces Department provide basic military training to fishermen, said the Hainan government adviser.
The branches are overseen by both the military and local Communist Party authorities.
The training, which takes place between May and August, includes search and rescue operations, contending with disasters at sea, and "safeguarding Chinese sovereignty", said the adviser. The fishermen are paid for their participation.
Subsidies allow the fishermen to use heavier vessels with steel - as opposed to wooden - hulls.
The government has provided Global Positioning Satellite equipment to at least 50,000 vessels, enabling them to contact the Chinese Coast Guard in emergencies, including encounters with foreign ships, industry executives said.
Several Hainan fishermen and diplomats told Reuters some vessels have small arms.
When "a particular mission in safeguarding sovereignty" comes up, the government authorities will coordinate with the fishing militia, the adviser said, asking them to gather information on the activities of foreign vessels at sea.
That coordination was evident in March, when Indonesia tried to detain a Chinese vessel for fishing near its Natuna islands in the South China Sea. A Chinese coast guard vessel quickly intervened to prevent the Indonesian navy from towing away the fishing boat, setting off a diplomatic row.
Beijing does not claim the Natunas, but said the boats were in "traditional Chinese fishing grounds".
China claims almost all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei have conflicting claims over the islets and atolls that constitute the Spratly archipelago and its rich fishing grounds.
State-controlled fishing firms dominate the fleets that go regularly to the Spratlys and are recipients of much of the militia training and subsidies, industry sources said.
The Foreign Ministry said at a recent briefing that China does not use its fishing fleet to help establish sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. "This kind of situation does not exist," it said.
State-owned Hainan South China Sea Modern Fishery Group says on its website it is "both military and commercial, both soldiers and civilians", and one aim is to let the "Chinese flag fly" over the Spratlys.
The company provides fishermen who sail to the Spratlys with fuel, water and ice, and then purchases fish from them when they return.