BANGKOK — A Chinese scientific ship bristling with surveillance equipment docked in a Sri Lankan port. Hundreds of fishing boats anchored for months at a time among disputed islands in the South China Sea. And ocean-going ferries, built to be capable of carrying heavy vehicles and large loads of people.
All are ostensibly civilian ships, but experts and uneasy regional governments say they are part of a Chinese civil-military fusion strategy, little concealed by Beijing, that enhances its maritime capabilities.
China’s navy is already the world’s largest by ship count, and has been rapidly building new warships as part of a wider military expansion. It launched its first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier in June, and at least five new destroyers are on the way soon.
The buildup comes as Beijing attempts to exert broader influence in the region. It is increasing its military activities around the self-governing island of Taiwan, seeking new security agreements with Pacific islands and building artificial islands in disputed waters to fortify its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the U.S. and its allies have challenged.
The civilian vessels do more than just augment the raw numbers of ships, performing tasks that would be difficult for the military to carry out.
In the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, for example, China pays commercial trawlers more than they can make by fishing simply to drop anchor for a minimum of 280 days a year to support Beijing’s claim to the disputed archipelago, said Gregory Poling, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
“China is able to use nominally civilian vessels that are clearly state directed, state paid to eat away the sovereignty of its neighbors, but then plausibly deny that the state is responsible,” he said.
China has been using civilian fishing trawlers for military purposes for decades, but has significantly increased the numbers recently with the creation of a “Spratly Backbone Fleet” out of a government subsidy program begun under President Xi Jinping, which helps cover building new vessels, among other things.
Those ships “largely appeared almost overnight” after China constructed port infrastructure a few years ago on the artificial islands it built in the Spratlys that could be used for resupply, Poling said.
Now there are about 300 to 400 vessels deployed there at any given time, he said.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and others also have claims to the Spratly Islands, which sit in a productive fishing area and important shipping lane, and are thought to hold untapped reserves of natural gas and oil.
But the Chinese ships deter other trawlers from fishing in the area, and have been slowly displacing them from the grounds, with little that governments can do, said Jay Batongbacal, who heads the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“Because they are ostensibly civilian fishing vessels, navies’ ships are unable to deal with them lest China accuse the Philippines of provoking an incident and using force against civilians,” he said. “They take advantage of perceived ‘grey zones’ below the threshold for triggering a self-defense response.”