01 February 2016

Trailblazers in Warfighting: The Maritime Militia of Danzhou

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Trailblazers in Warfighting: The Maritime Militia of Danzhou,” Center for International Maritime Security, 1 February 2016.

This is the second article in a five-part series exploring Hainan Province’s maritime militia, an important but little-understood player in the South China Sea and participant in its ongoing disputes. Our first article covered the maritime militia of Sanya City on Hainan Island’s southern coast, China’s closest naval and geo-cultural analogue to Honolulu. Now we direct our focus to Hainan’s northwestern shore, home to Baimajing (白马井, lit. “White Horse Well”) Fishing Port in Danzhou Bay. If Sanya and its Fugang Fisheries Co., Ltd. can be considered a wellspring of recent frontline activities by irregular Chinese forces in the South China Sea, Danzhou and its succession of fisheries companies—the current incarnation being Hainan Provincial Marine Fishing Industry Group (海南省海洋渔业集团)—may be regarded as some of the pioneers of military applications for Chinese maritime militia use in recent decades. Examining Danzhou’s forces in detail thus offers a comprehensive window into the origins, contributions, and ongoing development of China’s maritime militia to help elucidate these irregular actors.

China’s maritime militia forces are responsible for both peacetime and wartime roles. Most recently, their peacetime mission has focused on the protection of China’s maritime rights and interests. Maritime militia charged with the peacetime mission of “rights protection” (维权) could engage in the simple flooding of disputed waters with Chinese vessels, resisting foreign vessels’ attempts to drive them away. During wartime, maritime militia detachments might provide logistic support to active duty forces, or even lay sea mines themselves.

In the decades following the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the maritime militia served important coastal patrol functions, providing regular sea monitoring during their normal operations, and preventing Nationalist agents from infiltrating the mainland. While recent examples of irregular forces such as the Sanya maritime militia performing rights protection actions are available for observers to study, the fortunate absence of any recent maritime conflict leaves their potential use during any actual future combat less clear. Open sources can nevertheless help elucidate this important yet understudied issue. The maritime militia’s current training program for wartime missions is well-documented. Further insights may be gleaned by studying its actions during a previous conflict and in particular during a naval battle, which should serve as useful sources of insight into how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) may undertake any future potential coordination with the maritime militia. This conflict is the PLA Navy’s employment of the South China Sea Fisheries Company’s maritime militia during the 1974 contest between China and South Vietnam (hereafter, “Vietnam”) over the Paracels.

Although the mission roles of the maritime militia have evolved since 1974, they still retain many wartime functions deemed important by Chinese leaders. Considering that both the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes are widely dispersed; and that some features are occupied by China’s weaker neighbors, with at least one maintaining a military alliance with Washington; any employment of the maritime militia in a limited Spratly conflagration could potentially resemble the 1974 conflict in important respects. Maritime militia activities could conceivably form a tripwire for confrontation that Chinese leaders might believe could confound American intervention, especially if the costs of intervening promised to damage U.S.-China relations significantly.

Danzhou Bay’s Baimajing Fishing Port holds a unique place in China’s recent history as the PLA’s first landing site during the Hainan Island Campaign (海南岛战役) in 1950. There, on 5 March, the PLA made the first of a series of landings that collectively allowed it to link up with the local guerilla resistance to achieve an overwhelming victory over Nationalist forces by 1 May and to expel surviving enemy soldiers completely from the island. Subsequently, Baimajing became home to the South China Sea Fisheries Company (南海水产公司). Established in Guangzhou, in neighboring Guangdong Province, it became one of the metropolis’s largest fishing companies before moving to Baimajing in 1958. In a sign of the interconnected nature of such enterprises, the South China Sea Fisheries Company still maintained operations in Guangzhou.

Two trawlers employed by the South China Sea Fisheries Company served in a variety of supporting roles for the PLA Navy during the January 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands (西沙海战). From the outset, the militia’s presence agitated the Vietnamese naval forces, and served to steal the initiative from them. Vietnamese destroyer commanders were preoccupied with determining how to deal with these trawlers without resorting to armed force, affording the PLA Navy time to coordinate its own forces. The militia was tasked with monitoring the Vietnamese flotilla, and rescue and repair of a badly damaged PLA Navy mine sweeper. After the PLA Navy repelled the Vietnamese flotilla, the two trawlers provided transportation for 500 troops—two companies and an amphibious reconnaissance team from the Hainan military district—onto the remaining Vietnamese-occupied features. The Vietnamese hold-outs on the islands were quickly overwhelmed and surrendered. While small in scale, the important supporting role these irregular forces played during a period of PLA Navy weakness helped China secure ground crucial to supporting its current maritime strategy in the South China Sea. …

 

FURTHER ANALYSIS OF THIS IMPORTANT BUT UNDER-STUDIED SUBJECT:

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 and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Daring Vanguard: Introducing Sanya City’s Maritime Militia,” Center for International Maritime Security, 5 November 2015.

The following is the first in a five-part series meant to shed light on Hainan Province’s maritime militia. For decades, these irregular forces have been an important element of Chinese maritime force structure and operations. Now, with Beijing increasing its capabilities, presence, and pushback against other nations’ activities, in the South China Sea (SCS), Hainan’s leading maritime militia elements are poised to become even more significant. Yet they remain widely under-appreciated and misunderstood by foreign observers. Read the introduction to the article series here, which offers a general background on China’s maritime militia and explains its growing importance.

Such lack of understanding is increasingly risky for U.S. policy-makers, planners, and military operators. This is particularly the case given recent, long-overdue American expression of determination to continue Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in accordance with international law near Chinese-occupied and -augmented features in the Spratlys. As demonstrated by apparent maritime militia operations in proximity to USS Lassen when it sailed near Subi Reef on 27 October 2015, Beijing may well see maritime militia as a tool with which to make FONOPS increasingly uncomfortable for U.S. forces while carefully calibrating its signaling and avoiding undue escalation.

To help rectify this knowledge gap, we begin by introducing and analyzing maritime militia based in strategically-situated Sanya City, one of Hainan’s greatest naval, fishing, and maritime economic hubs. Prominent among Sanya-based maritime militia is the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co., Ltd. (三亚福港渔业水产实业有限公司), founded in 2001. One of Sanya City’s major marine fisheries companies, Fugang Fisheries is composed primarily of Fujianese fishermen. A leading participant in both fishing expeditions to the Spratlys and harassment of foreign vessels there and elsewhere in the SCS, it has been celebrated for its bravery.

Indeed, among even the vanguard militia units profiled in this series, Fugang Fisheries is itself at the vanguard. That helps to explain why it has been entrusted with supporting so many Chinese operations, and involved in so many related international incidents, in the SCS. Fugang has dispatched its vessels and crews as maritime militia in service of China’s maritime security efforts in the SCS, primarily for “rights protection” (维权), efforts to advance and defend China’s island and maritime claims that are increasingly in tension with Beijing’s parallel objective of “maintaining stable relations” (维稳) with its immediate neighbors and the United States. Focusing on Sanya’s maritime militia, Fugang Fisheries first among them, thus offers disproportionate insights into an important element of Chinese maritime policy and activity with direct implications for U.S. interests, presence, and influence in the SCS.

Christopher P. Cavas, “China’s ‘Little Blue Men’ Take Navy’s Place in Disputes,”Defense News, 2 November 2015.

China using maritime militia to carry out its dirty work in seagoing confrontations

WASHINGTON — When the US destroyer Lassen passed near a newly-built artificial island on Subi Reef in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands Oct. 27, it was already being escorted by several Chinese Navy warships. …

But several smaller vessels, described by the source as merchant ships or fishing vessels, were more provocative, crossing the Lassen’s bow and maneuvering around the destroyer even as they kept their distance.

“There were Chinese merchant vessels present that were not as demure as the Chinese Navy,” the US Navy source said Oct. 30. “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 extra craft seem to have been present, the source noted, “because they anticipated the Lassen’s transit.”

China has been known to use civilian ships as government proxies, often to harass foreign vessels, and several analysts have been scrutinizing current and recent incidents to determine who’s on board those mysterious vessels.

Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the US Naval War College and well-known authority on Chinese naval and maritime affairs, is pretty sure he knows. He suspects the Chinese naval militia, forces he’s dubbed “little blue men” — a reference to the “little green men” employed by Russia in Crimea and the Ukraine to insinuate military forces into a region without clear identification.

One clue, Erickson noted, is that there usually aren’t that many fishing vessels around Subi Reef.

“Actual numbers of fishing vessels regularly present in the Spratlys appear relatively low,” he observed Nov. 2. “If you look at it rationally, it’s pretty clear the operators of those fishing boats were maritime militia, especially to have done that maneuver” around the destroyer’s bow.

“China is trying to use these government-controlled fisherman below the radar to get the bonus without the onus to support its South China Sea claims,” Erickson said. “It’s a phenomenon little-known or understood in the US.”

“While Russia’s little green men in Crimea are widely known, insufficient attention has been paid to China’s little blue men in the South China Sea,” he said. “It’s so different from what the US does. People aren’t familiar with it, it’s hard to wrap their heads around it.” …

“As China is trying to show opposition to these freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea,” Erickson said, “we need to be more attuned to the types of vessels and types of personnel they may send there to create a more complex picture and even to push back.”

Erickson and his associates have discovered that militia have been involved in numerous incidents, including confrontations in March 2009 when several Chinese fishing vessels harassed the US intelligence ship Impeccable in the South China Sea.

“We have traced Chinese maritime militia to direct involvement in the Impeccable incident,” Erickson said, “and in the HYSY 981 oil rig incident with Vietnam [when numerous Vietnamese ships were rammed by the Chinese, with at least one sinking, in a three-and-a-half-month standoff in 2014], and potentially with Chinese pressure on the Philippine resupply effort of Second Thomas Shoal” in March 2014, where the Philippines have stationed a grounded naval ship on a disputed shoal.

Erickson noted that at the time of the Impeccable incident militia involvement was not widely discussed, but it has now been confirmed by images and written evidence. Now, “we’re trying to get ahead of the curve so that we can actually figure out who these trawlers belong to that were spotted near USS Lassen. I think it’s highly unlikely that it was a coincidence. If you read Chinese maritime doctrine … this is right out of the playbook of typical techniques that they use and are designed for.”

Reports of the Lassen incident, Erickson observed, are “empirical evidence matching up very closely to what Chinese writings on the maritime militia say its designed to be able to do, including obstruction activities.”

The militia on board the ships are often clearly identifiable.

“They have uniforms — many if not all of them have uniforms. We have many photographs of them with their uniforms,” he said. The PLA Daily, a People’s Liberation Army publication, even speaks to this.

“‘Putting on camouflage [uniforms], they qualify as soldiers,’” Erickson quoted. “‘Taking off the camouflage, they become law-abiding fishermen’”

“So China’s trying to have it two ways here,” he noted. “Besides deception and confusion, US and allied rules of engagement might be very restrictive against fishermen.”

“China is trying to use these maritime militia forces to put it in a position that frustrates us in our ability to respond.”

Erickson and his associates have tried to determine who is controlling the militia.

“The militia, often drawn from local workers or demobilized troops, are organized in a somewhat complex manner, reporting initially to local People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). When activated, though, they could report directly to naval authorities,” Erickson said.

“In peacetime their responsibilities include supporting China’s Navy and Coast Guard. They always answer to the People’s Liberation Army through the PAFD. But they also report to whatever agency they’re supporting at the time.”

While there are dozens of militia, several units stand out as frontline elements, Erickson noted.

“The majority of maritime militia are less elite, do more mundane transport, crewing, repair, coastal patrolling, and emergency response. But there is a small elite that is better manned, trained and equipped. They are developed to support those more advanced types of missions. Which include, theoretically, some wartime capabilities.”

That the militia are an entity unto themselves, in addition to the Navy and Coast Guard, is only recently becoming apparent.

“This is not a type of force we understand well enough,” Erickson said. “They could conceivably achieve some advantages through elements of surprise and confusion. Then even if we know who they are and what they’re doing we might have great difficulty dealing with them because of our rules of engagement. China could go out of its way to mis-portray some of these personnel as random patriotic fishermen, as vocal ‘residents’ of these ‘islands’ in the Spratlys. They’re very good at that kind of propaganda warfare.”

A greater awareness of the militia and their techniques, Erickson said, could weaken their effectiveness.

“These forces have their greatest power when they’re least known, least anticipated. The more we can call them out to foresee their presence and actions in advance, the more power we can take away from them. These are forces with rather limited capabilities overall. And if they’re exposed as militia that answer to the PLA chain of command it can be seen in a different light.”

Erickson is trying to get the word out about the militia, and published an Internet piece on Monday tying those forces to the Lassen’s transit.

The US and China, in an effort to reduce the possibility of violence, agreed earlier this year to an agreement, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). But the agreement only covers the Chinese Navy, not its other maritime services.

Erickson noted that while relations between the US and Chinese navies might be cordial and professional, the Coast Guard and militia are not bound by the same constraints.

“There’s a potential problem whereby China’s Navy is bear-hugging the US Navy to learn more about our best practices, talking the talk of a good cop, while the bad cops — the Coast Guard and maritime militia — are doing the dirty work in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”

“Our approach to China’s maritime forces and our interaction with them is incomplete,” Erickson said, “so long as two of the three sea forces are running around doing stuff that we consider very negative.”

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. …

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.

FOLLOW THE TRAIL

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. …

FOR IMPORTANT LEGAL INSIGHTS, SEE:

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

CONTENTS

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