Chinese officials are reportedly training fishermen to moonlight as a "maritime militia" — patrolling the disputed waters of the South China Sea and making note of any foreign vessels.
The training, according to information gleaned by Reuters, includes lessons on "safeguarding Chinese sovereignty," search and rescue operations, and dealing with disasters at sea.
"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 advisor to the government of Hainan, the southern Chinese province which encompasses Baimajing, a port town.
The Chinese government has reportedly allotted subsidies for the fishermen to obtain vessels with steel, rather than wooden hulls. They have also provided Global Positioning Satellite equipment for at least 50,000 boats — which makes it possible for them to contact the Chinese Coast Guard in the event of an emergency at sea, or an encounter with a foreign ship. Some fisherman and diplomats told Reuters that some boats had been furnished with small arms.
The geopolitics of the South China Sea — where China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei hold sometimes conflicting claims over the waters — has made the life of a fisherman a little more dangerous. "It's gotten a lot more risky to do this with all kinds of foreign boats out there," Huang Jing, a local fisherman told Reuters. "But China is strong now. I trust the government to protect us."
For fishing companies which dispatch large boats to the disputed Spratly Islands — an archipelago that lies off coast of Malaysian and the Philippines — the likelihood that Chinese vessels will encounter foreign ones is very high. "If some foreign fishing boats infringe on our territory and try to prevent us from fishing there ... Then we're put in the role of safeguarding sovereignty," said Chen Rishen, who runs a state-subsidized fishing company.
Lu Kang, the foreign ministry spokesman, insisted that the purpose of the fishing fleet is not to establish sovereignty claims in the disputed waters. "This kind of situation does not exist," Kang told Reuters. He has previously noted that China has ensured that their fishing fleets are conducting business entirely legally.
Countries seek control over the South China Sea because of its rich fishing grounds and the estimated $5 trillion of trade that passes through it each year.
Depleted fishing resources close to China's shores means that it has become an economic necessity for fish industry executives to deploy fishing boats further afield, into the disputed waters. China currently accounts for two-thirds of the world's reported fish production, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
In addition to fishing, the areas surrounding the uninhabited and disputed island archipelagos are believed to be rich in minerals, but until now have been largely unexplored.
The US has conducted air and sea patrols around the artificial islands that China is currently building in the Spratly Islands The US contends that those patrols are intended to emphasize that the waters of the South China Sea are international, and that all countries are entitled to freedom of navigation.
The question of which nations have rightful claim to the South China Sea is currently under consideration by an international court in The Hague. The matter was brought before the international court by the Philippines. Beijing has vowed to ignore the ruling, which is expected later this month or in early June.
But the Japanese Times reports that China has gone on a "charm offensive" ahead of the ruling, lobbying officials from India, Russia, Pakistan, Belarus, Laos and even Brunei, which claims portions of the sea, to side with their case.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen
Reuters contributed to this report.