The diplomatic discord set off by Japan’s recent detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain points to what foreign military officials say is a growing source of friction along China’s borders: civilian vessels plying disputed waters — and sometimes acting as proxies for the Chinese Navy.
The boats often have no obvious military connections, and none have been discovered for the trawler the Japanese detained. But foreign officials and analysts say there is evidence showing that they sometimes coordinate their activities with the Chinese Navy. China’s navy is seeking to expand a maritime militia of fishing vessels and to enhance its control over civilian agencies that regulate activities in coastal waters.
The result is an increasingly volatile situation in waters around China, especially in the contested East and South China Seas. Foreign military officials are now wary of a wide range of Chinese maritime vessels. American officials and a Pentagon report from 2009 warn of potential hostilities with Chinese civilian vessels, based in part on two separate incidents last year in which American warships had tense encounters with Chinese boats.