02 November 2015

Irregular Forces at Sea: “Not Merely Fishermen—Shedding Light on China’s Maritime Militia”

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Irregular Forces at Sea: ‘Not Merely Fishermen—Shedding Light on China’s Maritime Militia’,” Center for International Maritime Security, 2 November 2015.

Maritime militia, dead ahead! In a just-published Defense News article, Chris Cavas has made an important contribution to our understanding of the operations and applications of China’s irregular maritime forces. The forces he describes are almost certainly neither ordinary merchant ship operators nor random fishermen, but rather militiamen operating in pre-planned roles in conjunction with USS Lassen’s Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea (SCS) on 27 October 2015.

Cavas cites a U.S. Navy source: “‘There were Chinese merchant vessels present that were not as demure as the Chinese Navy. One came out of its anchorage in the island and crossed the destroyer’s bow but at a safe distance, and the Lassen did not alter course as the merchant ship circled around.’ Fishing vessels in the area added to shipping traffic in the immediate area, the source said, but the ship did not have to maneuver around them. But the extra craft seem to have been present, the source noted, ‘because they anticipated the Lassen’s transit.’”

In what follows, the authors trace maritime militia involvement—in close coordination with other Chinese maritime forces—to a variety of important incidents at sea. It is thus not surprising to see these forces active near such China-occupied Spratly features as Subi Reef. But greater awareness is needed to address this vital but too-long-understudied issue. To that end, we offer the following major points:

  • China’s maritime militia is understudied, but it is important for understanding Beijing’s maritime strategy, especially in the SCS.
  • The militia work with other instruments of Chinese sea power—the military and the coast guard—to defend and advance China’s position in its disputes. They may also support military operations in wartime.
  • They allow China to vigorously pursue objectives without risking military conflict or creating an image of gunboat diplomacy.
  • This article series will profile four of the most important militia units operating in the SCS. …


Tracking China’s “Little Blue Men”—A Comprehensive Maritime Militia Compendium

Rarely is a topic so little recognized and so little understood, yet so amenable to research using Chinese-language open sources… To increase awareness and understanding of this important subject, here is a convenient compendium of major publications to date on the matter. If you know of others, please bring them to my attention via <http://www.andrewerickson.com/contact/>.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Making Waves in the South China Sea,” A ChinaFile Conversation, The Asia Society, 30 October 2015.

… In air and sea, China will likely attempt to make future FONOPS increasingly uncomfortable for foreign vessels and aircraft. This would be an over-reaction that fails to acknowledge vital international interests in this region. As part of such efforts, China may harass FONOPS vessels with maritime militia while misleadingly portraying them as ordinary civilian fishermen. Such theatrics would prove ineffective, since and the U.S. government can publicize ample evidence in this regard. …

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Directing China’s ‘Little Blue Men’: Uncovering the Maritime Militia Command Structure,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9 September 2015.

While Russia has employed “Little Green Men” surreptitiously in Crimea, China uses its own “Little Blue Men” to support Near Seas claims. As the U.S. military operates near Beijing’s artificially-built South China Sea (SCS) features and seeks to prevent Beijing from ejecting foreign claimants from places like Second Thomas Shoal, it may well face surveillance and harassment from China’s maritime militia. Washington and its allies and partners must therefore understand how these irregular forces are commanded and controlled, before they are surprised and stymied by them.

China has long organized its civilian mariners into maritime militia, largely out of necessity. Recent years have seen a surge of emphasis on maritime militia building and increasing this unique force’s capabilities; however, it is difficult to ascertain who or what entity within China’s government has ordered such emphasis. One can point to Xi Jinping’s visit to the Tanmen Maritime Militia in 2013, after which maritime militia building oriented toward the SCS has seen growth in places like Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi. Yet local militia training and organization plans prior to this date had already emphasized the training of maritime militia units.

Unit Composition and Organization

China’s militia has two major subcomponents: an “ordinary” reserve of registered male citizens akin to the U.S. Selective Service pool, and a “primary” force more readily mobilized to respond to various contingencies. The primary force receives dedicated resources, troops demobilized from active duty, and training. Within the primary force, maritime militia units—formed solely at the tactical level of organization—are smaller and more specialized on average than their land-based counterparts. Within the maritime militia, a small but growing elite set of units are the ones most likely to be deployed on more sophisticated operations that involve monitoring, displaying presence in front of, or opposing foreign actors. They do so in part by supporting China’s navy and coast guard in such efforts. Some cities with large mobilization potential—i.e., a large maritime industry or fishing community—will form battalion-sized units. Most localities create company-sized units, however. These companies are divided into platoons and squads, with the smallest grouping based on each individual vessel. …

Andrew S. Erickson, “New U.S. Security Strategy Doesn’t Go Far Enough on South China Sea,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2015.

The Pentagon just released an “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy.” … … …

In sum, the report represents progress, but much work remains. Here’s what the Obama administration still needs to do to defend U.S. interests and the global system, and thereby shore up its Asia-Pacific legacy: …

2. Call out China’s “Little Blue Men.” Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin used so-called “Little Green Men” in the 2014 Crimean Crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping is now accelerating the development of maritime militia elements in part to advance China’s position in claims disputes, particularly in the South China Sea. Before these irregular forces interpose themselves at Second Thomas Shoal or some other contested location, the U.S. government must publicize the details of their existence and clarify that their use to resolve disputes or impair foreign vessels operating legally in international waters will not be tolerated. …

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Tanmen Militia: China’s ‘Maritime Rights Protection’ Vanguard,” The National Interest, 6 May 2015.

The maritime militias built out of the fishing industry are becoming a major foreign policy tool for the consolidation of China’s claims.

Hainan Province is using the fishing industry as a launching pad for the nation’s consolidation of the South China Sea (SCS). It is one of many measures—such as strengthening maritime law enforcement forces, enhancing administrative measures, augmenting infrastructure through island building, and delivery of 3G cellular coverage—but one with particular potential. China’s fishing industry and the world’s largest fleet that it wields has been an important foreign policy tool in Beijing’s repertoire since much of China’s historic claim on the SCS and current presence therein hinges on fishing activities. The fishing fleet’s political and strategic role has been given special significance and potential by China’s widespread employment of a relatively unknown paramilitary organization: the maritime militia.

Maritime militia building dates to the founding of the People’s Republic, when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had only the most basic naval capabilities. KMT blockading of mainland ports and depredations against merchant vessels along the coast forced the PRC to arm and prepare its fishermen militias, not only to protect themselves but to also aid early PLA ground and naval operations. During the tumultuous periods of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the fishing fleet saw ever more importance as high-end naval capabilities were targeted as tools of “the imperialists.” Desperately needed as providers of food during the long periods of famine, China’s fishing fleets were relatively insulated from political attacks. They saw employment in early PLAN coastal operations to recapture KMT occupied islands, surprise attacks against KMT naval ships, and later in the 1974 Battle of the Paracels.

Despite the leaps and bounds achieved by China’s Navy and Coast Guard forces in recent years, maritime militias still form “an irreplaceable force” within China’s maritime armed forces. There are increasing efforts to organize, standardize and normalize their utilization in support of broader foreign policy goals, inserting additional options into Chinese military and government leaders’ playbooks. They also have a particular set of advantages that allows their employment when professional, more visible maritime forces would create political costs that could trigger anti-China coalition building in neighboring countries.

Heading up the charge to build Hainan’s Maritime Militias is Luo Baoming, the provincial party chief; followed by a number of officials, most notably former Director of the State Oceanic Administration Liu Cigui. At the center of this effort are the newly founded Sansha prefecture-level city, its mayor Xiao Jie, and Maritime Militia Company, established in July 2013. This all comes on the heels of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s historic visit to the small fishing village of Tanmen in Qionghai County during his tour of Hainan Province in April 2013. There he listened to the fishermen’s stories and visited the local Maritime Militia Company’s museum exhibit. Xi’s commendations and instructions to this famous company have sparked a fury of Militia growth in Hainan Province. Subsequently Hainan’s government, party and military jointly promulgated “Opinions on Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” in 2014 to legislate the guiding spirit Xi articulated on his visit. Such legislation serves to fund and promote local counties to organize and recruit maritime militias, largely for the express purpose of protecting China’s sovereignty and maritime interests in the SCS.

Seen as brave patriotic mariners opposing incursions by foreign navy and coast guard vessels, and aided by the political steamroller that is executing China’s long-term strategy of becoming a great maritime power, these grassroots actors joining paramilitary organizations are creating a grey area difficult for other navies, or even coast guards, to deal with. They constitute a portion of a multipronged effort directed at the SCS, which includes the Paracel Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, and the Spratly Islands, and could be described as forming a united front outwards from China’s “Southern Gate” designed to solidify China’s position in the SCS.

The humble Tanmen Maritime Militia may seem like a small organ in the vast body that constitutes China’s maritime forces, but its ability to pioneer techniques and serve as a model for the thousands of other maritime militias along China’s coast—in coordination with China’s more professional forces—should not be overlooked. China’s government and military leaders, Xi foremost among them, emphasize its value. …

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Island Builders: The People’s War at Sea,” Foreign Affairs, 9 April 2015.

Recent satellite images show that the Spratly islands, a series of features in the South China Sea, are growing at a staggering pace. Tons of sand, rocks, coral cuttings, and concrete are transforming miniscule Chinese-occupied outcroppings into sizeable islands with harbors, large multi-story buildings, airstrips, and other government facilities. The parties behind the construction and defense of these islands remain a thinly veiled secret. As China builds up its presence in the South China Sea, it is also greatly increasing its ability to monitor, bully, and even project force against its neighbors. In Machiavelli’s words, Beijing has decided that it is more important to be feared than loved—and that making progress before a new U.S. president pushes back is crucial to its regional aspirations.


Chinese strategy in the South China Sea may have many components, but it rests on the shoulders of one man: President Xi Jinping. Since assuming office in 2012, Xi has directed the nation’s transformation into a “Great Maritime Power” capable of securing its offshore rights and interests, including its unresolved maritime claims in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas.

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Meet the Chinese Maritime Militia Waging a ‘People’s War at Sea’,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 31 March 2015.

… China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China seas are by now well-documented. Much less understood is one of the key factors in the country’s ability to realize those ambitions: an increasingly well-funded and capable maritime militia.

Along with Vietnam, China is one of very few countries to have a maritime militia. Such forces are typically comprised of civilian fishing vessels and fill a variety of roles, from using emergency response units to rescue stranded vessels to more assertive operations including conducting island landings to declare sovereignty. Mariners retaining civilian jobs in large companies or fishing collectives are recruited into military organizations and undergo military training, political education, and mobilization in defense of China’s maritime interests.

China’s force, which was formed in the early years of the People’s Republic, is drawn from the world’s largest fishing fleet. In recent years, it has grown in sophistication and importance, performing a range of tasks from supplying building materials to collecting intelligence. The most advanced units are even training to confront foreign ships, if necessary, in a guerrilla-style “People’s War at Sea” with sea mines and anti-air missiles. It now essentially functions as Beijing’s first line of surveillance, support and pressure in promoting the country’s claims and interests in East and South China seas. …


James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies 91.450 (2015): 450-67.


I. Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………450

II. China’s Maritime Militia ………………………………………………………………….451

A. Organization, Equipment and Training………………………………………452

B. Use of the Militia for Peacetime Power Projection……………………..454

C. Use of the Militia in Naval Warfare…………………………………………….455

III. Use of Fishing Vessels For Intelligence Collection………………………….456

IV. The Legal Status of Fishing Vessels in the Law of Naval Warfare…..458

A. The Principle of Distinction……………………………………………………….458

B. Contours of Customary Law………………………………………………………459

V. Problems Raised by China’s Maritime Militia ………………………………….465