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In early August, a large fleet of Chinese fishing boats, numbering up to about 400 at a time, entered into the waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands, guarded by patrol boats of the China Coast Guard. But the principal players in the operations were neither the fishermen nor the coast guard, but rather a paramilitary group known as the “maritime militia,” which played the crucial role in commanding the fleet. A close look at the incidents seems to point to a bitter feud between President Xi Jinping, who advocates reform of the military organization, and leaders of the military who appear to follow but in fact defy the reforms.

On the muggy afternoon of Aug. 15 at a fishing port in Quanzhou in the Fujian Province, fishermen were busy unloading from their ships the catch they had made during a 10-day expedition to the waters near the Senkakus. A man in his 30s, however, took off in a black 4WD vehicle hurriedly after landing on the port and giving instructions to others. According to an insider, this man was both the captain of a fishing boat and a key figure of the local maritime militia, and he needed to rush to the militia headquarters to report on the expedition. This scene illustrates how the primary purpose of the expedition was to encroach on Japanese waters, not to catch fish.

Japan repeatedly lodged protests with China as hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by the coast guard ships, swarmed the waters around the Senkakus daily, including into Japan’s territorial waters within 12 nautical miles of islands. Tensions quickly flared up as Beijing rebuffed the protests and repeated its position that the Senkakus, known in Chinese as the Diaoyu, were an integral part of China and that there’s nothing wrong with the operation of Chinese vessels in the surrounding waters.

A diplomatic source in Beijing said the purpose of the coast guard overseeing and inspecting the fishing fleet in the waters was to make a dent in Japan’s effective control of the Senkakus. According to a fishing industry insider in Fujian, the some 400 fishing boats that converged in the Senkaku waters were mobilized by the government, and only about 300 of them were actually catching fish. The rest were engaged in demonstration of force to claim China’s sovereignty over the islands.

Under normal circumstances, the insider says, fishermen in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces would rather not go to the waters around the Senkakus because it takes 10 hours each way and costs them more than 10,000 yuan (some ¥150,000) in fuel just to get there. It is safe to assume, therefore, that any ship that dares to go within 12 nm of the Senkakus belongs to the maritime militia, he adds.

When the Democratic Party of Japan-led government nationalized the Senkaku Islands by purchasing them from its private owner in the summer of 2012, Chinese authorities offered fishermen in Fujian and Zhejiang financial incentives to travel to the waters around the islands. Fishermen who accepted the offer received training by the local militia organized to lead a massive fleet to demonstrate China’s sovereignty over the Senkakus. This scheme did not materialize at that time because of bad weather, but four years later, the fishermen were offered even higher incentives, which were so generous that their expedition would make a profit even if they hardly caught any fish. Hence the large fleet coming to the Senkakus this summer.

The history of the Chinese paramilitary forces — often comprising retired soldiers and young Communist Party members who regularly get military training while working as farmers or fishermen — dates back to the late 1940s, when the Communists were fighting the Kuomintang forces in the civil war. Its numbers once ballooned to more than 30 million in the 1970s, but shrank in the process of the country’s subsequent economic liberalization and opening up — to about 8 million by 2011. The presence of maritime militia came to the forefront in 1974 in the fight that captured part of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea from then South Vietnam. About 1,000 militia men armed with machine guns led the operation by fishing in waters effectively controlled by Vietnam, and when they clashed with the Vietnamese forces the Chinese Navy took over and gained control of the islets in the area.

Was claiming its sovereignty the sole purpose of China’s mobilization of its fleet to the waters around the Senkakus? Back in April 1978, China sent hundreds of militia vessels disguised as fishing boats to the same waters in an apparent tactic of gaining the upper hand in the negotiations over the Senkaku issue ahead of then Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Tokyo to negotiate a bilateral peace treaty. In concluding the treaty later in the year, Deng promised that China would not again stir up such an incident around the islands.

Did Xi have a similar motivation when he sent the fleet to the Senkakus this summer? The deployment came close on the heels of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague which denounced China’s construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea as violating international law. This was a big shock to the Xi regime, which was already beset with the domestic economic slowdown.

A source at Japan’s Foreign Ministry speculated that China repeated the provocative acts around the Senkakus to divert global attention away from the South China Sea and prevent the PCA ruling from being taken up at the Group of 20 summit that Xi was to host in Hangzhou. There has also been speculation that Xi was trying to turn the attention of the Chinese people, as well as his opponents within the Communist Party, away from domestic problems.

But things were not all that simple. Had that been Xi’s true intention, the domestic media in China would have played up the fleet deployment to the Senkakus. But virtually none of the incidents was reported by the Chinese media.

Simultaneously with the Chinese ships’ expedition to the Senkakus, an informal meeting was held at the seaside resort city of Beidaihe in Hebei Province among current and former Communist Party leaders. At that meeting, Xi sought to gain the undisputed power of an absolute leader as had once been held by Mao Zedong. But his ambition failed in the face of opposition from two of his predecessors — Jian Zemin, who still commands vested-interest organizations, and Hu Jintao, who heads a powerful bureaucratic group called the Communist Youth League of China.

A China watcher suspects that Xi was trying to prove that he had full control of the military by sending the militia vessels to the Senkakus, because the militia, which works closely with the navy, could not have resorted to the provocative acts against the will of the military leaders. The same watcher also says Xi was perhaps aiming to placate those in the military who remain on guard against reforms of the military structure advocated by Xi.

In a major speech he gave at the Great Hall of the People shortly after the Beidaihe gathering, Xi said the economic reforms initiated by Deng had proven that opening up China to the rest of the world has been the key driving engine of economic and social development —an indication that he would switch to Deng’s policy lines. This was tantamount to a surrender to Premier Li Keqiang, who positions himself as the legitimate successor of Deng’s reforms.

Leaders of the military are not at ease with this change. Xi may well follow the strategy of China’s “peaceful rise” aimed at achieving national development without colliding with the existing international orders, as did his predecessor Hu Jintao. But if Xi leans heavily toward the strategy, he risks meeting opposition from the military leaders who are bent on taking a tough stand against Japan and the United States.

If Xi falls in line with the hawkish position of the military, however, he could become increasingly isolated within the Communist Party leadership. Behind the Senkaku dispute with Japan lurks a deep dilemma confronting China’s top leader.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. Other English-language translations of articles from the magazine can be read at www.sentaku-en.com.

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