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Maritime Protection Strategy: Mobilising the Private Sector

Maritime forces are essential to safeguarding offshore critical infrastructure (Royal Thai Navy Hua Hin Class OPV on patrol in the Gulf of Thailand)

Since the start of 2021, the world has witnessed a steady decline in global security, and unfortunately Africa was not spared from such incidents. One of the concerning developments is the declining state of governance in South Africa, and the first two weeks of July has proven quite a challenge for security forces to return calm to various provinces subject to mass organised looting and destruction of property and infrastructure, all supposedly because of the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma who was found guilty by the Constitutional Court (the highest court in South Africa), for contempt by having failed to appear before a commission investigating corruption charges implicating him during his tenure as President over the period 2009 to 2018. The most concerning part, however, was the government’s response (or rather lack of effective response), which highlights the poor state of the country’s national security strategy. Based on observations during the past two weeks we are of the opinion that the whole government security cluster is compromised in terms of safeguarding the Republic of South Africa and its sovereign integrity. Just focusing on government activities during the past 4 weeks, we state this based on the following main failures by government relating to the upholding of safety and security as per constitutional mandate:

1. Proposed amendments to the Firearms Control Act: The government wishes to withdraw the legal right to firearm ownership for the purpose of self-defence (and various other related activities), based on unfounded reasons and advice provided by questionable sources with undeclared agendas not being within the best interests of the citizens of the Republic. Initially government attempted to pass the amendments unnoticed without proper review and public participation (as per current legislative procedures), and when challenged to provide supporting research for the proposed changes supporting the government’s narrative justifying the proposed amendments, the research proved to be flawed and not supporting the government narrative which then resulted in the law-abiding public questioning the ruling party’s undeclared motives and agenda. The major concern we have with this event is the foreign lines of influence dictating this policy to the current sitting government, and more specifically why the current government administration is allowing foreign influencers to dictate domestic policies not being within the best interests of maintaining sovereign integrity to the benefit of the citizens of the Republic, or in other words, the tax paying public.

2. Failure to properly execute the arrest warrant for former President Jacob Zuma: When the Constitutional Court found the accused guilty on June 29, 2021, the South African Police Services (SAPS) was responsible for effecting an arrest as per Warrant of Arrest issued by the court upon the guilty verdict. However, as a political courtesy, Jacob Zuma was allowed until July 4, 2021 to hand himself over to the SAPS, after which the SAPS would be obliged to arrest him. Unfortunately, he did not meet this deadline and the SAPS was instructed on July 7, 2021 to arrest him if he failed to surrender. This delay influenced by misguided political loyalties towards the former President, allowed anti-government forces to mobilise their supporters as an attempt to resist the arrest of the former President at his homestead in Nkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal province. This resistance initially came in the form of an armed group of militias who identified themselves as members of the ruling party’s Military Veterans (MKMVA), dressed in camouflage battle dress uniform and armed with a mix of automatic rifles in the form of Vector R-4/R-5 and AK-47/AKM. These weapons were in a well-maintained condition, and considering it being automatic firearms (reserved for use by the armed forces of South Africa, and under exceptional circumstances by private users), the following questions arose:

  • Are these weapons government owned firearms, and if so, under which lawful authority was it distributed to individuals displaying an anti-government militant bearing?

  • Are the members of the ruling party’s Military Veterans Association also members of any of the armed forces of South Africa (explaining how they had access to restricted firearms)?

  • If these restricted firearms (not generally licensable to private individuals, especially in such numbers as displayed on that day), are not government owned, and the members of the so-called Military Veterans arm of the ruling party are not members of any of the armed forces, then these weapons are clearly unlicensed firearms being held by the ruling party in contravention to existing laws and regulations, the same laws and regulations the government selectively wishes to enforce on law-abiding citizens of the country. If so, then serious questions exist about the integrity of the armed forces, and why the South African Police Services are allowing the stockpiling and public display of unlicensed restricted firearms by select groups affiliated to the ruling political party. Furthermore, how did the MKMVA 'source' these firearms?

3. Government inaction and failures during the sudden uprising of mass organized civil unrest: Protest action commenced on July 8, 2021, and by July 11, 2021, the level of violence escalated out of control. The South African Police Services acknowledged its inability to effectively respond to the crisis which in turn prompted government to mobilise the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to support the SAPS in normalising the situation (after billions of US$ of destruction to property and infrastructure), not even mentioning the large number of jobs that are lost as a result of the destruction caused by these events. What we find concerning is the various verified camera footage of law enforcement officials, including members of the SAPS, engaging in acts of looting and abuse of government assets in the execution of unlawful activities. Also, there were various reports of police running out of ammunition (only to be resupplied with ammunition from private firearm owners, the same people the government wishes to disarm), which further explains reports of unwillingness to resists looters from causing further destruction. This is extremely concerning because during the past 6 years, the South African Police Services also ‘lost’ around 9.5 million rounds of ammunition and 4,357 firearms. To make things even worse, a shipping container loaded with more than 1 million rounds of small arms ammunition imported from Brazil was looted by a criminal gang. This incident specifically supports the theory behind most attacks being intelligence driven for the reason that the shipping container was in secure storage in a container depot going through the processes of importation, and the specific container was stacked above the ground. The attackers knew exactly which shipping container to target, as well as its contents, without touching any nearby containers (indicating that the source most probably works within the customs and import verification chain, or SAPS). Looking at the unfolding of the civil unrest, there are reasonable grounds to believe that this incidence of mass organized civil unrest was thoroughly planned, with possible advisory support from rogue figures serving within government security agencies (looking at the precision and momentum of attacks, depth of target intelligence, intensity of destruction caused, and resulting impact on the economy and affected communities). One of the reasons why the level of civil unrest escalated out of control was due to the government security cluster’s failure to develop contingency plans to avoid and suppress any acts of public violence.

A scene from the streets of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, where mass looting targeted major retails stores and goods transporting trucks. An example when crime is weaponised and used as legitimate justification for 'revolution'.

4. Information blindness relating to other activities sabotaging the economy of the Republic: While the political theatrics in predominantly the Kwa-Zulu Natal province was escalating via the targeted application of public violence, around 410 predominantly Chinese owned fishing trawlers were engaged in high-volume commercial fishing activities around 230 nm from the coastal baseline of South Africa along the coastal waters of the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. The largest component of around 243 vessels were grouped off the coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. These numbers were based on verifiable real-time AIS data, which excluded any ‘dark’ vessels (vessels operating with all onboard navigation devices switched off). Although these activities were not illegal, it does fit the definition of unregulated and unreported, being only 30 nmi from the South African EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) boundary within international waters during observable day-light hours. The most concerning fact about this ongoing incident is that the PRC successfully deployed and sustains a fleet of more than 410 commercial class fishing vessels off the coast of South Africa, which highlights the following:

  • The South African government’s inability to develop and exploit its own ocean resources for the purpose of creating thousands of desperately needed jobs to positively stimulate the failing economy through increased production of high-value ocean resources to increase exports, thus reducing current trade deficits.

  • The absence of effective long-range surveillance and monitoring of foreign para-military vessel fleets (since all PRC vessels within the distant water fleet also serve as PLAN auxiliary vessels tasked with the secondary role of international maritime surveillance, intelligence gathering, and strategic influence projection).

  • It is extremely unlikely that certain key political figures within government are not aware of these activities, which raises the concern over the extent and depth of political influence currently exercised by the PRC over the current government via the political instrument, and at which cost (and to who’s financial benefit), such influence is exercised.

Overview of foreign fishing trawlers AIS data operating of the coast of South Africa over the period July 1 - 31, 2021 (Source: The critical area of concern is the dark zone located between the coastal baseline and the fishing vessels boundary visualized by AIS. Based on recent lessons learnt from Peru and Ecuador respectively, this dark area is where 'dark mode' vessels operate, 'blinded' out of sight by the AIS transmission data from borderline non-infringing vessels acting as a distraction.

However, all is not doom for the only government department capable of holding together the fragility of current South African politics, is the Department of Defence and Military Veterans (not to be confused with the ruling party’s Military Veterans). Now, whereas this may be perceived from a Western perspective as a positive, within the African context this is usually perceived as a negative by paranoid politicians (such as the types usually involved with mass irregular activities), who considers a powerful and capable military that is morally bound to upholding the constitution of the country above political favour, as a threat to future political existence in the event of political abuse and economic exploitation. This is one of the reasons why the current South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been gradually pacified in terms of military capabilities, especially strategic power projection, starting 1992 to present. In terms of current events, since deployment of the SANDF (although in small numbers compared to the current threat), various hotspots were returned to normal. The other great observation is how the South African society (from all races, religions and cultures), came together to stand their ground against an outnumbering mass of criminal hostility which exists because of the flawed and compromised political system. Considering all things going wrong in South Africa, we need to remember that the current South African society is being terrorised through violent criminal means by a minority group of people who are wrongly influenced through various forms of misguided political opportunism and radicalisation. The main point we can derive from the current escalation of political instability and insecurity within a developed country like South Africa is that security is NOT only a State responsibility anymore. The reason is that all members of society are affected under conditions of insecurity and poor governance, especially when caused by the political leadership of the country, and in the 21st century no-one can afford subjecting themselves any longer to government failures looking at the current evolution of global power dynamics. This directly relates to our main subject for discussion in this post relating to how the public can be involved as a resource in expanding the capabilities of a Maritime Protection Strategy as a force multiplier in the absence of sufficient government resources, especially in support of the South African Navy which is experiencing a gradual decline in already limited blue water capabilities.

To explain this concept as simple as possible, this discussion will continue from our previous discussion: Maritime Piracy and Illegal Fishing in Africa: A South African Case Study.



One of the reasons why South Africa is experiencing rising political instability is due to the high unemployment rate of around 42% as of 2021. Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was also poorly informed and managed, which further caused for an additional 2.2 million people to lose their jobs (the July 2021 civil unrest also added an additional 50,000 unemployed). The result of high unemployment usually leads to public frustration to the point where the unemployed public becomes victims of opportunistic politicians who influence them to destroy and loot government and private infrastructure as a means of survival, usually critical infrastructure required to sustain job creation. To make things worse, the prospects of recovering soon from the current situation is extremely slim for the simple reason that the South African society in general lacks functional education and skills to improve their own conditions constructively (a result of a government education system that has been failing for more than two decades), and the current government administration lacks the required skills and experience to improve economic outlook. One solution to improve the country’s economy is to effectively develop the opportunities offered by the ocean economy, which is especially suitable for creating high paying jobs amongst a lower skilled labor sector of society. However, government control over the country’s sovereign interests have declined drastically over the past 20 years due to mismanagement and corruption, the result thereof being a major challenge to regain total effective control over its territories for economic expansion. To gain perspective over how great a task it is, South Africa’s EEZ extends around 1 million square kilometres (km²), similar in size to the total land mass of the country, with an additional area of operations extending around 5 million square kilometres within the Southern Ocean as a result of various treaty obligations.


As a result of various reasons to include failed government policies, misguided strategic direction and general neglect, South Africa now faces the following threats in terms of developing the Southern Ocean economy to the benefit of the population:

1. Violent Non-State Actors (VNSA’s): At present, 10 out of 30 coastal states in Africa are living under conditions of war. The result of this is that maritime arms trade has rapidly increased (predominantly originating from Yemen serving as a proxy hub). The most prominent VNSA in Africa is the armed militant group Al Shabab, who is also considered the wealthiest VNSA on the continent. Most recent developments concerning Al Shabab includes alignment with the so-called Islamic State group, total dominance of the maritime crimes landscape in Gulf of Aden and surrounding states, and the most recent expansion of terror operations to the Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique. The effect this has on current South African economic activities is the threat to South African oil and gas investments in Mozambique, as well as increased danger to merchant vessels transiting via the Mozambique Channel. The Mozambique Channel is of great strategic importance to ensuring shipping traffic along the South African coastline for the reason that the Cape sea route is the alternative shipping route to the Suez Canal to connect Asia with the Eastern Coastline of the Americas. Along the African West Coast, Boko Haram (also an Islamic State affiliate), dominates the present hostilities within the Gulf of Guinea region. The Gulf of Guinea threats are known to have expanded down south to within Angolan territory, the main reasons for these threats remaining unchallenged being accountable to a lack of government institutions and ‘sea blindness’ (lack of ISR) to effectively monitor and counter these threats.

2. Increased Foreign Military Presence in Africa: Due to the abnormal high occurrence of continuous failed governments and never-ending hostilities, most African countries presently accommodate foreign forces originating from all the top five UN Security Council (UNSC) members (Russia, PRC, France, UK, and the United States). With the current escalation in hostilities in neighbouring Mozambique, South Africa is concerned about the situation opening the door for increased foreign involvement (Mozambique currently has military advisors from Portugal, EU, and the US, having accommodated Russian advisors in the past, and soon anticipating a deployment of UK SOF from 2022). Mozambique also welcomed around 1,000 soldiers from Rwanda during July 2021, followed by Special Forces units from Lesotho, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa (SADC). Looking towards the future, African states are also becoming more aware of the increasing likelihood of a foreign naval powers conflict within the African Naval Domain, especially considering the increasing number of [competing] foreign military missions strategically spread throughout Africa. Of most concern are foreign naval vessels that are either nuclear armed, and/or nuclear powered, and what the direct ecological and humanitarian consequences on Africa would be if such vessels were to be destroyed or damaged in any form of naval conflict. All of the permanent members of the UNSC have indicated plans to expand on current nuclear arsenals.

3. Economic Sabotage: The threat of economic sabotage as a military threat is still much overlooked and greatly misunderstood in Africa due to education limitations pertaining to the subject. For the purpose of explanation, ‘economic sabotage’ is defined as: Any act or activity which undermines, weakens or renders into disrepute the economic system or viability of the country, or trends that bring about such effects. Within the South African maritime protection domain, economic sabotage activities include:

  • Maritime piracy.

  • Insurgency.

  • Smuggling of illicit/restricted goods.

  • Wildlife and endangered species poaching.

  • Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

  • Undocumented migration, refugees, and human trafficking.

  • Financing of land based militant campaigns.

  • Targeting of oil & gas infrastructure, especially non-OPEC related developments.

  • Environmental pollution.

  • Any illegal and/or unlawful act(s) which create negative economic outlook for investors.

The recent violent civil unrest instigated by opportunistic politicians in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, serves as an example of economic sabotage.

4. Foreign Interest Expansionism: The single greatest strategic value that South Africa holds is its anticipated (and required) roles within the Southern Atlantic Strategic Zone (UK), which includes the Cape Sea route. This shipping route that passes along South African ocean territory is still considered one of the most vital trade routes in the world, and the most practical sea route to Asia and the Far East via the Atlantic Ocean. Upholding the territorial integrity of the Cape Sea route, which includes the Mozambique Channel, is of great strategic importance for mainly the Western powers because it connects the Atlantic Ocean coastal states (such as the Americas, UK and EU) to Asia and the Far East in the event of the Suez Canal not being accessible (as experienced during the grounding of the 1,300 ft Ever Given container ship on March 23, 2021). The Suez Canal has proved to be a major concern in the event of a future global scale conflict whereas a scenario is envisioned that the Suez Canal would be purposefully targeted to disrupt rapid naval reinforcement deployments via the canal, consequently redirecting all shipping via the Cape sea route to link NATO members with Asian partner nations (such as India). In the Southern Ocean, traditionally the United Kingdom had guaranteed access to the Simons Town Naval Base, Cape Town, by means of the Simons Town Agreement which allowed the Royal Navy to maintain a controlling presence within the region, to include access to an advanced shipyard to support naval operations around the British Overseas Territories (British Antarctic Territory, Ascension, Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Falkland Islands, and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands). However, due to various political factors unfolding at the time in both the United Kingdom and South Africa respectively, this agreement was officially terminated by both governments on June 16, 1975. Since then, South Africa became the sole custodian over this ocean territory, to include safeguarding of the Mozambique Channel as a member of the Commonwealth since 1994. Looking at the strategic value of this sea route, we can see why future anticipated foreign naval battles are considered a threat if this ocean territory is not effectively safeguarded.

5. Poor Strategic Direction: Strategic planning is the processes required by government to influence the future instead of only preparing or adapting to the future. These processes involve financial planning processes that assesses long-term financial implications of current and proposed policies, programs, and assumptions. At present, South Africa has no functional strategic direction mainly caused by the fact that one of the negative results of a democratic political dispensation is that strategic planning (which should involve long-term planning up to 50 years in the future), only lasts for an average of less than 5 years, or in other words, an election cycle. The other concern is the degrading effect that foreign political franchises have on the current ruling party, especially the concept of ‘political campaign funding in exchange for policy dictation’. South Africa is definitely not immune from the toxic effects of influence by various powerful global 'socialist' movements.

6. Diverse Maritime Security (MARSEC) Stakeholders: South Africa presently has 25 different maritime security stakeholders in government alone, which excludes private sector stakeholders. The main problems in relation to bringing these different stakeholders together are summarised as follows:

  • Each of these stakeholders are fighting for political recognition as a priority above their prescribed mandates.

  • Poor unity between these departments due to political interference, which includes the deployment of inappropriately qualified cadres (as a means of rewarding political loyalty).

  • There are no mechanisms for enabling cooperative mobilisation (such as joint operations centres).

  • Most of these stakeholders, with clearly defined government mandate to safeguard the ocean economy, operates in silos with limited intelligence sharing mechanisms. Also, looking at the political leadership of some of these departments, many of these members are compromised as a result of past involvement (and implication) in acts of government corruption.

7. Region Specific Deficiencies:

  • Poor port security control measures. The recent civil unrests in South Africa highlighted how South Africa, the most advanced economy in Africa, has major security failures in terms of imports via the Port of Durban which resulted in the targeted theft of more than 1 million rounds of small arms ammunition which was supposedly under security forces control.

  • Traditionally, maritime security has always been a low budget priority mainly due to politicians and government officials not knowing the economic importance of safeguarding the country’s respective ocean territories.

  • Sub-Sahara Africa is incapable of effectively protecting the sea due to a severe lack of resources, to include insufficient numbers of Maritime Patrol Aircraft to conduct ISR missions. This challenge is further exacerbated by poor interoperability between the region’s navies because of cultural (and tribal) differences, non-interoperability of hardware, diverse foreign influences and affiliation, different political outlook, and inherent mistrust between neighbouring states with limited political maturity to resolve shared challenges for achieving mutually beneficial strategic objectives.

  • As foreign influences within the political spectrum increases through various means to include corruption, foreign military assistance is rapidly diminishing as foreign powers are becoming more focused on taking care of themselves considering current changing global power dynamics (Read: The Great Power Competition: How does it Affect Africa?).

  • Inherent ignorance for understanding the State funding cycle in terms of how controlled economic exploitation of the ocean economy increases State revenue which in turn increases government budgets to include social spending, economic development and diversification, and infrastructure development as requirements for implementing sustainable strategic plans.

8. Economic Decline: The South African economy has been contracting for more than a decade for various reasons to include government corruption, political mismanagement, poor economic policy, reduced domestic production leading to increased imports dependence, local currency devaluation, decline in exports and lower international commodity prices, rapidly increasing trade deficits, reduced production output, reduced monetary value of output, and higher costs associated with higher sovereign debt. The direct result of these activities resulted in an escalating situation of joblessness which in turn causes for increased social spending while eroding the tax base even further as a result of poor economic strategy. To illustrate the extent of economic decline, South Africa experienced a ZAR 82 Billion trade surplus during 2006 (Mbeki Administration), but in 2021 (Ramaphosa Administration), South Africa faces a ZAR 441 Billion trade deficit. The consequence of such rapid economic decline equates to drastic cuts in safety and security expenditure, why South Africa is facing a situation where the South African Police Services have admitted to its inability to meet its mandated duty of effective policing of the country. This failure by the SAPS demanded the deployment of the SANDF in support of law enforcement operations while at the same time leaving no alternative means of safeguarding the sovereign integrity of the Republic beyond its land territory. In terms of defence spending and how much it declined in percentage vs GDP, the defence budget for 2021 is about 0.8% of GDP compared to the defence budget of 1995 which comprised 2.6% of GDP. The initial defence spending decline commenced around FY2011 (Zuma Administration), which was also about the time when government corruption drastically increased. Furthermore, one of the major factors further influencing economic decline as a result of unregulated outflows of currency, is the illegal trade in narcotics. The most profitable of all narcotics is cocaine with a current street value of around US$ 90,000-00 / kg (FY2021). In ZAR value, this is R 1,307,439-00 per kilogram of cocaine, meaning, for every 1,000 kg of cocaine being illegally smuggled into South Africa, domestic currency circulation is reduced by about R 700 million (of R 1,3 Billion street value) due to unregulated capital flight which in turn gradually erodes spending within the regular economy while adding severe strains to government social spending caused by increased spending on health care and social grants as a result of the effects of narcotics addictions and associated job losses and business closures, which in turn leads to a decline in production and spending within the regular economy.

9. Reduced Naval Operational Hours: Due to increasing budget cuts, the only means the South African Navy could adapt to its ever declining budget, was to reduce operation hours at sea. During FY2019/20, SAN operational hours were reduced to 10,000 hours at sea, compared to 22,000 hours for FY2013/14. By it's own admission, the Navy requires 12,000 hours (500 days) at sea per year to sufficiently train its personnel, with an absolute minimum of 7,800 hours dedicated to force employment obligations (border protection, marsec, anti-piracy). At present the SAN can only afford 6,000 hours at sea, with just over 4,000 hours allocated to force employment obligations. To add to the already long list of challenges, the NAVY needs both the Valour Class frigates (x4) and Heroine Class submarines (x3) to undergo midlife overhauls at a cost of around ZAR 3 Billion. At present, only ZAR 270 million has been allocated towards these projects until FY2022/23, and most likely under current circumstances, these vessels, comprising the majority of the SAN's strategic blue water capabilities, will most probably be out of service soon.

Opposing Forces:

Looking at the evolution of warfare and the emergence of international threats against states not necessarily considered enemies by definition of war, hybrid warfare (also known as unrestricted warfare), has created the scenario where governments have to oppose threats not belonging to a single specific nation. This has resulted in the situation where nations at peace with each other are also fighting each other by means of alternative resources that can sometimes be affiliated to one another, but not always clearly distinguishable. IUU Fishing and Maritime Piracy are examples of such situations which fall within the definition of Non-Quantifiable Adversary Forces (NQAF) which are very much silently increasing within the scope of 5GW (5th Generation Warfare). To add to the frustration, these threats are sometimes difficult to categorise legally, the term Non-State Actors (NSA) most used within the US DoD to describe these forces threatening and challenging the traditional sense of sovereign integrity belonging to what is defined and acknowledged within international law as rights and privileges belonging to sovereign states. Correct categorisation of threats is important to establish applicable lawful response to determine whether the countering- and neutralisation of a threat is either a military solution, or a law enforcement solution as per applicable domestic- and international laws. For this discussion, the term ‘Opposing Forces’ will apply for simplification of explanation, which includes all forms of Anti-Government Forces and Non-State Actors engaged in activities fitting the definition of the acts of Economic Sabotage.

Within the context of the South African maritime protection strategy, the most prominent Opposing Forces threatening the Southern African territorial waters are the Chinese (PRC) fishing fleet, as well as rogue fishing vessels affiliated to Spanish ownership (although in much lesser numbers than the PRC scenario). The general modus operandi for both these groups are relatively the same, although the PRC fishing fleet being the most complex and advanced why it is the focus of discussion in this article.


The PRC distant water fishing (DWF) fleet is considered the greatest threat to fishing resources globally because it operates in excessive numbers to meet PRC global fishing strategy demands while receiving generous subsidies from the government. Within the public eye, the PRC has been on the receiving end of much global criticism for its role in promoting IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) Fishing activities, and as a public relations exercise, the PRC government implemented various ‘reforms’ to improve foreign public perception through various operations clamping down on smaller ‘illegal’ fishing operators, or so it would appear. In reality, it was just a game of theatrics to satisfy the public while saving the larger, more effective components of this phenomenon. However, looking at the legal definition of IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) Fishing, the PRC has made quite some progress in decreasing the incidence of ‘Illegal’ fishing activities by Chinese flagged vessels, but it was done through the educated improvement in exploitation of the ‘Unreported’ and ‘Unregulated’ domains, with the ‘Illegal’ fishing domain only being barely avoided from a technical perspective in most cases.

Furthermore, the value in these multiple flag-state ‘civilian registered’ vessels lies not so much in the fishing activities, but rather in the global intelligence gathering capabilities of these vessels since all crews are paramilitary trained as members of the PLAN maritime militia. For this reason, these fishing vessels are equipped with sensors usually found on naval vessels which also aids the crews in evading maritime authorities in foreign ocean territories (such as radar warning receivers). During 2021, there has been a drastic increase in global reports relating to extreme overfishing by predominantly Chinese owned vessels operating within international waters bordering EEZ’s known to accommodate large fishing resources. Southern Africa is one of those areas affected the most. However, to understand the aggressive expansion of Chinese fishing activities within international waters, we need to better understand the PRC government policies driving these expansions. Also, to add further complexity to this phenomenon, the term 'Chinese owned' does not only imply (or apply to) vessels sailing under the Chinese flag. The Chinese distant water fishing fleet has evolved through the years to its present state of operating under various 'flags of convenience', with absolute beneficial ownership hidden under layers of international shelf companies. Basically, the term 'Chinese fishing vessels' refers to all global fishing operations, irrespective of the registered flag state of the vessel, where the catches of such vessels ultimately end up within the consumer market of China. It appears to be all legally confusing, which it was designed to be within its present state.


The PRC’s strategy in terms of fishing is quite simple. China’s greatest demand for fishing resources lies with its own domestic market. A decade ago, China used to import the majority of its fish from international markets. However, since fish (as a resource) was priced as a commodity, China decided to reduce the costs of imports by rapidly expanding its own distant water fishing (DWF) fleets. The main benefits of this strategy are as follows:

1. Create more domestic jobs through the development of a large commercial fishing fleet.

2. Create jobs within the domestic marine manufacturing sector to support these vessels over lifetime.

3. Decrease imports of a costly international sourced commodity for domestic consumption, therefore increasing retention of foreign exchange reserves which can be utilised for other more critical imports.

4. Due to China’s expanding domestic demand, a drastic decrease in global imports by China will result in a gradual reduction in global prices for fishing resources if China stops buying. The result of such actions are lower international prices to the point where it becomes financially feasible to purchase foreign fish resources from foreign markets again.

5. Dominate the global commercial fisheries market through ‘swarming’ tactics in terms of fishing vessels. If the PRC records the highest statistics in terms of global market share based on annual catch data, the government will have greater power to dictate global policy via the applicable United Nations and other international bodies in terms of fishing regulations and future market share guarantees.

6. Where Chinese vessels dominate international fishing grounds, adjacent domestic fishing operations will gradually decline due to the costs of operations exceeding profitability in the absence of government subsidies as applicable to the Chinese fishing fleet, consequently opening up more resources for exploitation by Chinese assets.

7. Extend international maritime surveillance capabilities in support of the PLAN via the commercial fisheries industry, categorising Chinese state-owned fishing vessels as naval auxiliary assets.

8. Purchase failing foreign based fish processing factories in overseas ‘partner’ territories at a fraction of the cost of developing new factories, territories where traditional commercial fishing resources have been depleted, but through ‘favourable’ trade agreements become supplied via Chinese foreign based fishing vessels without questions being asked about fish catch data.

To determine the effectiveness of this strategy, we only need to study South American squid export data to China over the period 2012 to 2016. Based on this data alone, China imported 10% of the volume of squid from South America during 2016 compared to the volume of squid imported during 2012. Looking at Chinese demand for squid over that period, there has been a drastic increase (meaning, the PRC domestic demand now exceeds the domestic demand of 10 years ago). So, how does the PRC make up for the rapid increase in demand while imports decreased by around 90%? Very simple, the Chinese government decided to catch their own fish, even if it meant they had to send large fleets of fishing vessels to all corners of the globe, usually escorted by large factory ships, refrigeration ships, and refuelling ships which drastically reduces the requirements for fishing vessels to return to port for offloading of catches. The problem with this strategy, which even the PRC authorities have come to realise, is that global fishing resources of commercially viable and sustainable quantities have become depleted due to mainly overfishing, the PRC presently being the main culprit in such activities.

Now, moving the focus to the Southern Ocean, South Africa has the unique geographical advantage of accessibility to both the colder Atlantic Ocean, and warmer Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean sector along the South African coastline adjacent to the Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal coastlines are home to large commercially viable stocks of squid, tuna and shark (the most in demand fish species for Chinese consumption). This is the reason why there is a large presence of predominantly Chinese owned fishing vessels operating outside the EEZ of South Africa.


However, the more serious threat posed by the large fleets of Chinese ‘fishing’ vessels, is the maritime militia doctrine controlling these large fleets, a doctrine designed to enhance asymmetry perceived in favour of China to increase Beijing’s initiative, such as using these ‘innocently perceived’ fishing fleets to shape foreign policy and relations with the advantage of plausible deniability while sailing under different flags. These forces also allow China to disrupt foreign survey operations with lower escalatory risks than would be presented by aggressive manoeuvring by PLAN warships. The militia can close in assertively within foreign territory while remaining under the close watchful eyes of the Chinese Coast Guard and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy). Thus, the militia can fulfil a variety of roles spanning the spectrum of peacetime coercion and wartime confrontation. Looking at the large fleet of Chinese vessels operating off the coast of South Africa, sufficient reasons exist to expect the PRC applying the doctrine of peacetime coercion against the South African government. Looking at training, the Chinese maritime militia train for a variety of missions to include ship boarding, search and rescue, reconnaissance, assisting law enforcement and rights protection, use of light weapons, deception operations (altering radar signatures), and logistics support. This logistics support doctrine, however, is the means how many of the illicit goods originating from South Africa are transferred back to China (such as rhino horn, abalone, and other regulated commodities), and how many illicit goods enter the country via unregulated ports (such as unregistered firearms and ammunition, narcotics, etc). Looking at future developments of the maritime militia, the PLA needs to downsize around 300,000 soldiers in the next few years, many of these soldiers having served within the PLAN. As per current developments, most of the retired PLAN members will be incorporated into the maritime militia as a next step for further evolving the levels of capability of this force, with the main focus of “win without fighting” via coercive tactics. Commercial fishing operations is of great strategic importance to China, and what better way to maintain the advantage than by militarising that component to the greater benefit of achieving Chinese dominance and global reach (while the primary international focus in terms of growing Chinese defence capabilities are directed towards the conventional arms of service).

In short, the Chinese foreign distant water fishing (DWF) fleet is a military force under disguise of a fishing fleet. The primary role of this fleet is to expand Chinese foreign interests and to support PLAN objectives while at the same time harvesting resources from foreign ocean territories considered strategically important to maintaining Chinese economic growth through foreign resources exploitation. For this reason, the Chinese ‘fishing’ fleet does not deserve civilian protection measures during conflict or hostilities, justifying the use of more aggressive actions to counter these foreign forces.


The ADF African oversight desk conducted a study of real-time AIS data from various sources to develop an operational summary of what was happening out of sight from the mainstream media within the South African oceanic region during the ongoing political violence in Kwa-Zulu Natal, along with the military escalation developments in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. As at 24 1200B JUL 2021, around 410 foreign registered commercial fishing vessels were found operating along the South African coastline as follows:

24 1200B JUL 2021, Global AIS data belonging to commercial fishing vessels only (Source:

24 1200B JUL 2021, AIS transmissions belonging to commercial trawlers in sub-Sahara Africa (Source:

24 1200B JUL 2021, AIS transmissions of commercial fishing trawlers along the coast of South Africa. This data excludes vessels operating in 'dark mode' (Source:

Sample Vessel Registration Analysis: To support the findings of this section of the article, a sample analysis of 10% was done based on the registered AIS data per vessel. This data only reflects vessels which were not operating in dark mode (Dark Mode: AIS turned off). The following foreign registered fishing vessels were identified (Vessel Name, Flag State):

Sector A (9/88): Charn Fu Ying, Chinese Taipei

Shyang Chyang No 8, Chinese Taipei

Shyang Chyang No 88, Chinese Taipei

Shyang Chyang No 888, Chinese Taipei

Hung Chuan No 232, Chinese Taipei

Chen Hsing No 188, Chinese Taip