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China using civilian ships to extend military reach, ability: experts

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China is reportedly using civilian ships to back up its territorial claims and magnify its military power. 

According to experts and officials, the hundreds of fishing boats and ferries that have been anchored for months in the disputed South China Sea help China to perform tasks that would be difficult for its military to carry out.

Gregory Poling, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told The Associated Press that the country pays commercial trawlers more than they can make by fishing to drop an anchor there.

“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.

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Poling said China’s numbers have increased there, with ships appearing “almost overnight” after China constructed port infrastructure a few years ago on artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. 

Now, he said, there are around 300 to 400 ships deployed there at any given time.

The numbers have increased with the creation of a “Spratly Backbone Fleet” out of a government subsidy program.

While the Philippines, Vietnam and others also have claims to the Spratlys, Chinese ships deter trawlers from fishing in the area, according to 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.”

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Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst with the defense intelligence company Janes, told the outlet that China has also been deploying civilian research vessels for military-related tasks in areas where its navy would be unable to operate without provoking a response.

He said that China is able to bypass Western export controls prohibiting sensitive technology from being sent to China for military use by building civilian ships.

State television videos show military vehicles and troops boarding ocean-going ferries and saying that they are testing how to “use civilian transportation resources to execute military tasks.”

Videos like that could be meant to intimidate Taiwan, according to Dahm, and Beijing has been increasing military activities around the self-governing island.

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While China’s navy is the world’s largest by ship count and has been expanding, at the moment, it does not possess enough amphibious craft to transport the number of troops needed across the Taiwan Strait, according to Rahmat.

“There is always the possibility that the PLA could commit to a high-risk operation against Taiwan with the possibility of losing a large number of civilian ships,” he noted.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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