Beijing’s maritime militias add to growing instability in the China Seas

Map shows fishing ports used by China’s maritime militias
Fishing grounds and political muscle: locations of fishing ports where China’s main civilian maritime militias are based (source: macpixxel for GIS)
  • Among the six key Southeast Asian nations, China’s coast guard force is now bigger than those of the five other countries combined
  • Civilian, but military-commanded militias are helping Beijing firm up its presence in disputed waters in the South and East China Seas
  • Beijing uses maritime militia to harass neighbors and allow itself deniability; the policy has created another layer of instability in the already volatile region

Territorial waters disputes in East Asia, coupled with a growing Chinese assertiveness on the world stage, have turned the South and East China Seas into one of the 21st century’s biggest potential flashpoints. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), military expenditure by East and Southeast Asian nations has risen by almost 90 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Another striking feature of the developing geopolitical game is the governments’ increasing use of non-military maritime assets to assert territorial authority. In the struggle to achieve control of the region’s waters, national coast guards and civilian maritime militias are the first to enter the fray, and at this point, China is positioned to win this lesser-arms race.

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