Following a bizarre statement that the “reclamation” of South China Sea areas historically not belonging to China is near completion, the Chinese government announced the passing of a new law which would require all private, civilian maritime vessels to be ready for military use “in an emergency.” Such a move converts civilian ships into military ships at any time.
State-run China Daily first printed the news, describing the law as a “new set of technical guidelines” that would require all ships to be “suitable for military use in an emergency.” The law regulates five types of vessels, which will all need to be renovated to fill the requirements of military use designated by the Chinese government. The government is working on passing a bill which would provide funding to private owners of ships in order to pay for the renovations, essentially buying the option of military use from every private ship owner.
The article estimates China currently has 172,000 civilian ships. It does not define what an “emergency” would entail. It does quote an expert, Cao Weidong, who states: “Modern naval warfare often requires the mobilization and deployment of a large number of ships while the mass production of naval ships in peacetime is not economically sensible. Therefore, it is a common practice that shipbuilders reserve some military application platforms on their civilian vessels so they can serve the navy in wartime.”
China has in the past adhered to liberal interpretations of what its national security entails, most recently in the South China Sea, where it has invested in extensive construction of artificial islands, landing strips, and even two lighthouses in the Spratly and Paracel Islands and the South Johnson Reef. The China Classification Society, a group tasked with registering ships, approved of the plan to militarize civilian vessels, claiming it would “enable China to convert the considerable potential of its civilian fleet into military strength.”
Such statements regarding China’s maritime capabilities appear to contradict the nation’s insistence that the construction in the South China Sea is purely civilian. The construction, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated in the past, was “legal, reasonable, conforms to the situation and neither impacts nor targets any country.” The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other nations staking a claim in the South China Sea disagree, with the first two nations being the most vocal in protesting that Chinese military ships have been harassing their fishermen.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino has gone as far as to compare the Chinese construction in the region to the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland shortly before World War II, citing repeated reports of Philippine fishermen being chased out of the lush Spratly Island waters that they have had access to legally for centuries. Vietnam has also issued similar protests that fishermen have been harassed by Chinese ships in the area, with one fishing vessel being attacked by a water cannon, leaving one man with a broken leg.
The economies of Vietnam and the Philippines have both suffered as a result, and fishermen in the latter have taken to protesting the Chinese presence in the region.
The United States has issued several warnings to the Chinese government to cease their construction on the islands and reefs of the South China Sea. In response, a Chinese state newspaper published an article arguing that “war is inevitable” between China and the United States should the U.S. government not remain silent about their incursions into international waters. China has also sent military vessels to harass American surveillance ships in the South China Sea.
China has since announced that its reclamation project will soon be “complete,” though the nation has not established a specific date on which it would cease that project, or what an end to the “reclamation” would consist of– whether China is ending its construction projects, retreating its ships, both, or neither.