KEY POINTS

  • Chinese magazine says Vietnam's maritime militia undertakes covert spying
  • Fishing boats clash with Chinese coastguard vessels to get attention on "Chinese coercion"
  • Vietnam has sparred with China for 50 years over the resources in the South China Sea

Vietnam has taken a leaf out of its big neighbor's playbook, building a maritime militia that resembles China's "little blue men" who keep South China Sea littoral countries nervous with their irregular tactics.

About 8,000 fishing boats and 70,000 fishermen are working with the Vietnamese Navy in a range of missions, South China Morning Post reported, quoting a Chinese military magazine.

"Vietnam’s maritime militia force and their activities in waters near Hainan, the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands have threatened China’s maritime law enforcement and national defense-security," the report quoted Naval and Merchant Ships magazine. The matter must be "taken seriously and dealt with in a timely manner," the Chinese military magazine said.

The protest from the Chinese side resembled the outrage by the Philippines in mid-March when about 220 Chinese vessels harbored near a reef the Philippines claimed within its special economic zone. The Chinese government played down the protest and insisted that the "fishing boats" were taking shelter from poor weather.  

While Beijing doesn't acknowledge their existence, these blue-painted vessels and their crews are reportedly funded by the People's Liberation Army. They exert a presence so large around a disputed reef or islands that it becomes impossible to challenge them without military action. China employed them to seize Scarborough Shoals in 2012, which was then claimed by the Philippines.

The Naval and Merchant Ships magazine said the missions undertaken by Vietnam's "maritime militia" include "covert spying on Chinese military facilities and ships," and sometimes "deliberately clashing with Chinese coastguard vessels" to get media attention on "Chinese coercion."

"The guerilla warfare tactics could offset Chinese law enforcement ships’ advantages in terms of vessel size and technologies … [and] if they get captured, the economic cost is limited but diplomatic and political gain could be huge, so they have little fear," it added. 

Vietnam has sparred with China for the past 50 years over the latter's "historic claims" in the South China Sea. While the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea gives Vietnam the right to oil and gas reserves to at least 200 nautical miles off its shores, China had continued to harass Hanoi's survey efforts in Vanguard Bank, an especially rich undersea region.

Both countries also dispute over the fishing rights in Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone and the waters off the disputed Paracel Islands. Hanoi had threatened Beijing with litigation, much like the one initiated by the Philippines in 2016.

Not just strengthening its maritime militia, Hanoi has also beefed up its outposts in the disputed waterway. For the last two years, the country has been making its bases more resilient to invasion or blockade and strengthening deterrence by ensuring it can strike Chinese facilities, said a report by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

West Reef, one of Vietnam's outposts in Spratlys, has seen a lot of new constructions, including several coastal defense installations, administrative buildings, concrete pads and bunkers, and a large tower structure probably for communications or signals intelligence.

A tunnel network was constructed on the northern and southern tips of the island, besides increasing vegetation in the area.  

Another island, Sin Cowe, also saw significant upgrades over the last two years, including new defensive installations along the coastline. 

Vietnam is also said to have installed newer, longer-range weapons systems on its outposts. 

Vietnam protests Chinese aggression in South China Sea File picture of anti-China protesters marching on a street in Hanoi against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea Photo: REUTERS