China is training and supporting ordinary fishermen in the Hainan Island to police the waters of South China Sea where it is locked in maritime dispute with a host of Southeast Asian countries.
According to Reuters, the fishing fleet has been provided with military training and subsidies as well as fuel for different exercises including patrol.
Beijing's aim is to create a "sophisticated fishing militia" in the region, the agency reported citing provincial government officials, regional diplomats and fishing company executives.
"The maritime militia is expanding because of the country's need for it, and because of the desire of the fishermen to engage in national service, protecting our country's interests," an advisor to the Hainan government told Reuters.
The advisor claimed that the training was being provided by city-level branches of the country's armed forces. The branches are overseen by both the military and local Communist Party authorities in charge of militia operations nationwide.
These trainings include search and rescue operations, battling disasters at sea and "safeguarding Chinese sovereignty. The training sessions take place between May and August.
The fishermen are paid by the government for participating in the trainings. The government has also provided Global Positioning Satellite equipment for at least 50,000 vessels, enabling them to contact the Chinese Coast Guard during maritime emergencies.
Several Hainan fishermen, as well as officials, told Reuters that some vessels have small arms.
The advisor also said that when "a particular mission in safeguarding sovereignty", comes up government authorities will coordinate with the fishing militia and will ask them to gather information on the activities of foreign vessels at sea.
The diplomats and naval experts have raised concerns and said that the fishing militia could raise the risk of conflict with foreign navies in the strategic waterway through which $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year.
The United States has been conducting repeated sea and air patrols near artificial islands China is constructing in the disputed Spratlys archipelago including by two B-52 strategic bombers in November. The US says its freedom of navigation operations is designed in such a way that it would increase the "freedom of navigation" sail-bys around the disputed area.