In the middle of the night on June 9, Chinese fishing vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 collided with Philippine fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver, which was riding at anchor near Reed Bank in the South China Sea. The Chinese ship fled the scene, leaving 22 Filipino fishers aboard a sinking Gem-Ver in peril until they were rescued by a passing Vietnamese boat. The Yuemaobinyu 42212’s actions during and after the incident, combined with sparse details about the vessel itself, raise questions about whether it may belong to China’s maritime militia operating throughout the South China Sea. There is not enough publicly available information about the vessel for a definitive answer. But data gathered by AMTI and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) strongly suggests that the 42212 is more than just a normal fishing boat.

The Yuemaobinyu 42212 was first identified by the Chinese embassy in Manila, which on June 15 released the fishing vessel’s name and said it was a purse seiner from Guangdong Province. The Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources then tracked the 42212’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) history in SeaVision, a maritime domain awareness platform hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It shared what little it had found with ABC-CBN News on June 19. The earliest available data from shore-based AIS receivers in China showed the ship in the port of Bohe in Maoming City, Guangdong from April 14 to 26. Its AIS signal disappeared just a few miles from shore on April 26, heading south, and was not seen again until June 13 when it reentered Bohe Port. It is impossible to track the 42212 between these dates, including the night that it collided with the Gem-Ver, as its AIS was never picked up by any other shore- or satellite-based receivers during that time.

When ships “go dark,” as Yuemaobinyu 42212 did after leaving port on April 26, it indicates that vessel operators may have switched off their transponders to avoid detection, which makes missing AIS signals an important clue when tracking illicit activities. However, there are many other reasons for a vessel to “go dark,” including if its AIS signal is too weak, which appears to partly explain the situation here. The Yuemaobinyu 42212 has a Class B AIS transponder according to commercial AIS tracking platform MarineTraffic. Such transponders often cannot communicate with satellite-based receivers; they were developed for smaller vessels not transiting international waters and do not meet the requirement of the International Maritime Organization. This may explain why the ship could not be tracked while operating far from shore between April 26 and June 13.

After Philippine officials raised the incident with Chinese counterparts, Beijing agreed to launch an investigation. Manila likewise conducted its own investigation. On August 28, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs sent a letter to the Philippine Embassy in China, part of which was translated and released publicly by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila. Signed by Chen Shiqin, president of the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association, the letter expressed the apologies of the unidentified owner of Yuemaobinyu 42212 who was said to be a member of the association. The letter asserted that the owner would be encouraged to help the Philippines expedite an insurance claim for damages to the Gem-Ver.

So, is Yuemaobinyu 42212 a purely commercial fishing vessel that panicked after an open sea collision and fled the scene? Or does its lack of an AIS history and the unusual circumstances of the June 9 incident indicate a connection to China’s official maritime militia? CSIS and C4ADS dug deeper into the open source information available about the vessel and its owner.

According to a document uploaded to a Maoming city government website, the Yuemaobinyu (粤茂滨渔) 42212 is registered to Bohe Port (博贺港) in Maoming City, Guangdong Province (广东省茂名市). Liang Jin (梁进) is listed as the vessel’s owner or operator. The website is no longer available, but data from it about the 42212 could still be found in Google search data as of June 2019.

Further searching reveals that in May 2014, Liang Jin was operating another vessel out of Bohe Port called Yuedianyu (粤电渔) 42212.

It is likely that these are the same vessel. First, the vessels appear to be operated out of the same location. The differing characters in the two names refer to administrative areas of Maoming City. “Dian” (电) in Yuedianyu is short for Dianbai District (电白区). “Maobin” (茂滨) in Yuemaobinyu is short for the Maoming Binhai New Area (茂名滨海新区), which in 2012 was established as a new subdivision of Dianbai District containing Bohe Port.

Second, historical AIS data provides evidence that these vessels are one and the same. According to Yuemaobinyu 42212’s AIS transmissions, the vessel measures 44 meters long and 8 meters wide. Historical AIS data retrieved from the vessel monitoring platform Fleetmon shows the operator of the Yuedianyu 42212 reported a similar size of 50 meters by 8 meters. Operators are solely responsible for entering their vessel’s dimensions into the AIS system, which often leads to inaccuracies. Fleetmon records the first AIS transmission from Yuedianyu 42212 on October 24, 2015, and the last on April 29, 2018. This indicates the vessel was likely renamed sometime between May 2018 and April 2019, when the Yuemaobinyu 42212 made its first recorded AIS transmission.

Chinese public reports confirm that a maritime militia unit has been established in Dianbai District, making it plausible that the ship could be part of the militia. The unit operates from Bohe Port, where Yuemaobinyu 42212 is based, and where fishing vessels are conscripted for paramilitary exercises in preparation for maritime combat. Open source data also explicitly connects the 42212 to state activities. During its time as the Yuedianyu 42212, the ship was commissioned for government-backed fisheries research on multiple occasions. In 2012, scholars from Shanghai Ocean University and Guangdong Ocean University rented it for research in waters off Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracels.

In another instance, the ship was used by scholars from various research institutes and government agencies to conduct tuna fishing experiments in the South China Sea, the findings of which were reported in the August 2016 issue of the journal South China Fisheries Science. These two articles provide some other details about the vessel, including that it was built in 2012 and that its exact dimensions are 49.8 by 7.8 meters.

AIS broadcasts from Yuedianyu 42212 show its Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number as 412463659. A MMSI is supposed to be a series of digits shared digitally over radio to uniquely identify vessels. The numbers are assigned to individual vessels by their flag states (all Chinese MMSI numbers begin with 412, 413, or 414). But, according to Fleetmon, the MMSI used by Yuedianyu 42212 was also being used by another fishing vessel, Yueyangxi 82189, which has been operating from Zhuhai since at least August 2017. The seemingly renamed Yuemaobinyu 42212 is now using a different MMSI, but the months-long overlap is yet another potentially telling data point in the vessel’s history.

To recap the publicly-available data: Yuemaobinyu 42212 operates from a port known to house a maritime militia unit; it appears that under a previous name it was contracted for government-backed research on at least two (and likely more) occasions; and its AIS history is suspiciously incomplete, even accounting for the fact that it is equipped with a weak Class B transponder. These facts do not prove that the 42212 is part of the maritime militia. They do, however, strongly suggest that it does not operate solely as a commercial fishing ship, which raises the question of whether the collision with the Gem-Ver was intentional.  Further investigation into the June incident would need to take these facts into account as well as explore several issues beyond the scope of this report, including Liang Jin’s background, business connections, and any beneficial owners of the 42212.

And where is Yuemaobinyu 42212 now?

ABS-CBN’s report showed that it appeared to stop broadcasting AIS shortly after returning to Bohe Port on June 14. Its movements after that are unknown until September 22, when it briefly transmitted AIS from just outside the port of Shidao on the Shandong Peninsula. Its signal was lost again as it transited the Yellow Sea before being briefly seen on September 25 inside South Korea’s territorial sea south of Hongdo Island. It began broadcasting again from Shidao on October 12 and was last spotted heading southeast on October 15.