Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia: What It Is and How to Deal With It,” Foreign Affairs, 23 June 2016.
Last October, when the American destroyer USS Lassen sailed by Subi Reef, an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, a number of Chinese merchant ships and fishing boats maneuvered around it, apparently having anticipated its approach. The Lassen was on a freedom of navigation operation, meant to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to maintaining open access to the area, much of which China claims as its own. China was using an unusual resource to broadcast its opposition to the trip: ships that appeared to be crewed by civilians, but in all likelihood were actually controlled by state-sponsored forces taking orders from China’s military.
To promote its disputed claims in the South China Sea, China is increasingly relying on irregular forces such as these, which together form what China calls its maritime militia. In recent years, maritime militia units have played important roles in a number of encounters and skirmishes in international waters: in 2012, for example, they participated in China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, and in 2014, they helped China repel Vietnamese ships from an oil rig that China had stationed near the contested Paracel Islands.
The militia represents a useful tool in China’s plan to bloodlessly press its maritime claims, since its frequently civilian appearance allows Beijing to deny its involvement in encounters such as last October’s and exploit the U.S. Navy’s rules of engagement…. …
FURTHER ANALYSIS OF CHINA’S MARITIME MILITIA:
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/>.
John Sudworth, “South China Sea: The Mystery of Missing Books and Maritime Claims,”BBC News, 19 June 2016.
If you want to understand the way China really feels about its controversial claim to huge swathes of the sea off its southern shore, then the island of Hainan is a good place to start.
This is a place where everything is bent towards justifying and upholding that assertion of sovereignty, from government and military policy, to fishing and tourism, and even history itself.
We came to the fishing port of Tanmen, on Hainan’s east coast, because of recent state media reports about the existence of an extraordinary document – a 600-year-old book containing evidence of vital, national importance. …
China’s insistence that these features are Chinese territory rests largely on a “we were there first” argument. So 81-year-old Mr Su’s book, “cherished” and “wrapped in layers of paper” is apparently a kind of maritime Holy Grail. …
… when I ask to see the document – the existence of which was, just a few weeks ago, being so widely reported in China and beyond – there’s a surprising development.
Mr Su tells me it doesn’t exist.
“Although the book was important, I threw it away because it was broken,” he says. …
Whatever it was, Mr Su’s book is not, it seems, any longer ironclad proof of anything. Except perhaps China’s Communist Party-controlled media’s willingness not to let a few facts get in the way of the official narrative. …
Everywhere we go, we’re followed by a number of blacked-out government cars; from the port where we try to interview fishermen, to the fish market where we speak to traders, and all the way back to our hotel. …
All of this comes, of course, amid the much-anticipated international court ruling on the South China Sea, expected some time in the next few weeks. …
This may help to explain why a foreign journalist’s presence in Hainan at this particular moment in time is likely to attract such close attention from the authorities.
Although in our case there may have been another reason: we were, perhaps, asking too many questions about Hainan’s notorious “maritime militia”.
China has been known to be giving its fishermen military training for decades.
But in recent years, the number of militiamen on fishing boats is reported to be increasing and their actions appear to be becoming more assertive in helping to underwrite and enforce China’s sovereignty claims.
Their strategic advantage is that they can be, and often are, used for irregular military engagements – occupying territory at sea, carrying out surveillance or harassing other vessels – while operating under the guise of civilian fishing boats.
The activities of the militia units in the port of Tanmen have been well documented.
They even have their own headquarters inside the town’s government compound, honoured with a visit in 2013 by the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Despite our efforts though no-one would talk about the role this shadowy force plays within China’s fishing fleet, and the more we ask, the more intense the tailing and government surveillance seems to become.
Prof Andrew S Erickson from the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College believes the presence of the militia in already troubled waters raises risks.
“I see a tremendous risk of miscalculation and escalation,” he told me.
“The current approach that China is taking to the use of its maritime militia not only puts them in danger, [it] puts any other individuals and vessels around them in danger and it indeed imposes a risk of force being used against them by the US and other forces in legitimate self defence or to ensure the legitimate passage of vessels.”
And that risk may rise even further, he suggests, after the Permanent Court of Arbitration Ruling.
“When the arbitral tribunal finally hands down some sort of a ruling I think China is going to try to find a way to concretely register its opposition, its resolve and its displeasure.
“And I think using maritime militia forces to further approach in close proximity and potentially harass US, Philippine and other vessels is something that policy makers from those countries must be prepared for.” …
Andrew S. Erickson, “Reported Chinese Efforts to Conceal Maritime Militia Reach Intelligence-Insulting Level,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 16 June 2016.
Chinese officials are insulting foreign intelligence, likely in all senses of the word.
Xi Jinping’s visit in 2013 to Tanmen Township, and the designation of its Maritime Militia as a national model, has made this the leading unit for other seaports to emulate. Yet earlier this month, as the Al Jazeera article below documents, a local propaganda official told foreign reporters that a contingent of 40-50 fatigue-clad militiamen drilling was “part of a film crew.” Moreover, Wang Shumao, the Tanmen Militia’s deputy commander and a veteran of its involvement in the Scarborough Shoal Standoff with the Philippines in 2012, “denied knowing anything about the militia.” Amazingly, Wang further claimed that his deeply-tanned comrades were simply fishermen who “chose to wear camouflage to protect themselves from the sun”!
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before—one of confirmed Maritime Militia involvement in a series of international maritime incidents and skirmishes, including the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands, the 2011 sabotage of Binh Minh 02 and harassment ofViking II, the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff, and the 2014 HYSY-981 Oil Rig Standoff.
Whatever its future plans for its irregular sea forces, China clearly has something to hide. Fortunately for open source analysts, China can be surprisingly transparent—at least in Chinese. In the tradition of supporting free scholarly inquiry and discussion, as pioneered and practiced by the China Maritime Studies Institute, China Analysis from Original Sources now offers an updated China Maritime Militia Compendium:
Reporting on groups involved in confrontations with foreign patrol vessels in the South China Sea is proving difficult.
Tanmen, China – We had come to this fishing village on Hainan Island, China’s southern-most province, because it’s home to one of the country’s best-known maritime militias – the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company.
Its recruits are mostly men from the fishing community. They are given basic military training, and their activities, according to the Hainan Daily, include “collecting maritime information … and contributing to sovereignty defence in the South China Sea.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping cited the Tanmen Maritime Militia as the model for maritime militia building, and honoured them with a visit in 2013.
But while they may be celebrated in local media, we soon found out filming the Tanmen Maritime Militia was not so straightforward.
It was by chance that we spotted them one sunny morning, as we drove past Tanmen Port – around 40 or 50 men, dressed in military fatigues, going through a drill.
What was to prove even more difficult though was getting people to talk about the group.
We asked a local official from the propaganda office whether the men we saw were members of the Tanmen Militia. He told us they were part of a film crew. That would have been a bit more believable, had we not driven past the film crew just minutes earlier.
A fisherman we interviewed, Wang Shumao, denied knowing anything about the militia. He said the men we saw were just fishermen who “… chose to wear camouflage to protect themselves from the sun.”
But it turned out Wang was not telling the truth about how much he knew about the group.
We found out later that he was not just an ordinary fisherman. He is a deputy commander of the Tanmen Maritime Militia.
He was also on one of the 12 Chinese vessels involved in a standoff with the Philippine Navy at Scarborough Shoal in 2012. He had led an unsuccessful attempt to block Philippine vessels from approaching the shoal.
The Qionghai City Government website published a profile of Wang last year.
Wang did not reveal any of that when we spoke to him, and denied knowing anything about the group.
But why were the Chinese so reluctant to talk to foreign media about the Tanmen Maritime Militia?
Perhaps because of the unflattering reports about China’s maritime militias. These groups have been involved in confrontations with foreign patrol vessels in the South China Sea.
In 2014, boats belonging to maritime militias, together with Chinese coastguard and naval ships helped form a cordon around an oil rig, that the Chinese had installed in disputed waters, to prevent Vietnamese maritime authorities from approaching.
A year later, fishing vessels, believed to be part of several Chinese maritime militias, were reportedly involved in harassing a US navy ship when it sailed near the Spratly Islands in October 2015.
Experts say the use of quasi-civilian forces is a tactic to avoid direct military confrontations, and allows the Chinese government some degree of deniability.
Andrew Erickson, professor at the US Naval War College, told Defense News: “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.”
China however denied this. Its foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “This kind of situation does not exist.” …
Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “From Frontier to Frontline: Tanmen Maritime Militia’s Leading Role—Part 2,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 17 May 2016.
Tanmen Militia’s Leading Role in the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY)-981 Oil Rig Standoff, Spratly Features Construction, and Beyond
Our series on the leading maritime militias of Hainan Province continues with this second installment in a two-part in-depth examination of the maritime militia of Tanmen Township. Since its founding in 1985, this force has transformed from an entrepreneurial fishing collective on China’s marine frontier to a reliable frontline unit in increasingly vigorous sovereignty promotion. In part one we discussed the role Tanmen’s maritime militia played in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident that resulted in a Chinese takeover of the feature from the Philippines. After the Communist Party of China (CPC) officially declared the new national goal of becoming a maritime power at the 18thNational Congress, newly appointed Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the Tanmen Militia unit as the model for emulation in maritime militia building. A subsequent deluge of delegation visits further reinforced the significance of this unit. Part two will focus on other major events involving the Tanmen Maritime Militia, particularly its participation in the 1995 Mischief Reef Incident and China’s sea-based defense of the HYSY-981 oil rig off the southern Paracel islands in 2014 (which also involved the Sanya militia, as the first article in this series discussed) and China’s multi-decade augmentation of its Spratlys outposts. This article will also probe the Tanmen militia’s organization and leadership, the challenges and opportunities associated with its management and motivation, and will raise the possibility that the Tanmen militiamen’s mission at Scarborough Shoal may not yet be finished.
After Xi Jinping’s visit in 2013, Tanmen Township quickly became ground zero in China’s discussion about the future direction of militia work. The township was host to the 2014 National Border and Coastal Defense Work Conference. Additionally, Tanmen People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) Head and Maritime Militia Company Commander Zhang Jiantang attended the Fifth National Conference on Border and Coastal Defense Construction Work in Beijing in June 2014. There he received awards on behalf of his company for its bravery in defending China’s maritime sovereignty. One month prior, he and his men were involved in one of the most volatile showdowns between Vietnam and China since their border war in 1979, the Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY)-981 Oil Rig Standoff of 2 May-15 July 2014.
On 6 June 2014, Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense newspaper The People’s Army stated that China was maintaining between 110 and 115 vessels around China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) HYSY-981 oil rig. This included 35-40 coast guard vessels, 30 transport ships and tugboats, 35-40 “fishing vessels,” and four naval ships. These forces assembled to form what the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to in English as a “cordon” around the oil rig, effectively preventing Vietnamese vessels from approaching the platform. For China’s maritime forces it was an escort mission to protect HYSY-981 during its operations. In early May, the Chinese government issued Maritime Notice 14034 warning foreign vessels not to enter within three nautical miles of the location of the rig at these coordinates (15°29’58.0”N 111°12’06.0”E). However, Vietnamese reports state China expanded its cordon radius and would confront approaching vessels 9.5-10 nautical miles out from the rig. It appears that Vietnam’s fishing vessels could not fish near the platform because of heavy Chinese interference, so they opted to fish outside of the Chinese cordoned area to display presence in their “traditional fishing grounds.” They were not safe, however, as vessels from China’s maritime militia sallied forth to repel the Vietnamese vessels, using non-military forces against non-military forces as a deliberate means of preventing escalation. One report describes Chinese fishing vesselQiongdongfang 11209 (琼东方11209) ramming and sinking Vietnamese fishing vessel No. 90152 during an encounter 17 nautical miles from the rig, where Vietnamese fishing vessels were surrounded by 40 Chinese fishing vessels. Video footage of Qiongdongfang 11209 running down the smaller Vietnamese vessel can be seen below. Moreover, Vietnam’s smaller wooden-hulled fishing vessels were outclassed by China’s larger tonnage steel-hulled fishing vessels. …
PART ONE OF THE TWO-PART ARTICLE:
Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 21 April 2016.
This series on the leading maritime militias of Hainan Province began by examining the “rights protection” efforts of Sanya City’s maritime militia, whose exploits have given them a prominent position among the province’s irregular sea forces. Discussionsabout the Sanya City maritime militia are still ongoing as we watch their development. Next came our evaluation of the historical legacy of Danzhou’s maritime militia, which directly demonstrated the value of irregular forces in naval warfare during the 1974 Paracels Sea Battle. This third installment in the series is part one of a two-part in-depth look at the maritime militia of Tanmen.
Tanmen Fishing Harbor is a small fishing port on the eastern shore of Hainan Island. It is home to one of China’s best-known maritime militia units, the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company (潭门海上民兵连). This irregular force receives disproportionate media coverage stemming largely from its involvement in numerous incidents with foreign actors at sea, most notably the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Philippines. Since its founding in 1985, Tanmen has received numerous accolades as an “advanced militia unit” from the government and military on all levels. Tanmen’s fame spread further after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit on the first anniversary of the incident. Xi encouraged Tanmen’s maritime militia to build larger vessels, collect information in distant waters, master modern equipment, and support “island and reef” development. The extent of Chinese attention to this fishing village merits a deep-dive analysis to determine what is happening on the ground there, and what kind of maritime militia capabilities are resulting.
Some of Tanmen’s importance to the PRC stems from the wealth of historical artifacts and other evidence China possesses that allegedly support claims that Tanmen fishermen were the earliest community to discover and sustain continuous exploitation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Numerous reports of Tanmen fishermen having been detained or attacked by foreign states also support a growing Chinese narrative of the victimization of Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea. This narrative justifies enhanced ‘defensive’ activities by Chinese maritime forces operating there. Contributions from fishing communities such as Tanmen’s to China’s overall posture in the South China Sea bolsters domestic Chinese rationale for regaining lost “blue territory” (蓝色国土) and “maritime rights and interests” (海洋权益). Tanmen Village is likewise the future site of China’s South China Sea Museum and the South China Sea Base for the State Administration of Cultural Heritage’s Undersea Cultural Heritage Protection Center. Both institutions will likely be dedicated to bolstering China’s historical evidence to support its claims of sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and resource rights in those waters. The latter also has a stated purpose of “promoting maritime industries, shoreline protection and development, utilization and conservation of marine resources, marine service systems, and the implementation of the overall national marine economic development strategy.”
Central to furthering these interests are irregular units including the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company. Its history exhibit, located in its headquarters, houses artifacts documenting historical presence in the South China Sea by the forefathers of present-day militia members. These include navigation logs, compasses, and diving gear. Tanmen’s maritime militia activities began well before the present company’s official establishment in 1985. Previously a more loosely-organized fishermen militia, it became an official militia company when the PRC promulgated new guidelines for developing fisheries in distant waters and opened up the oceanic fishing industry to privatization. A contingent from this new organization was led initially by its first commander, Huang Xunmian, to the Spratlys, thereby becoming the first organized Tanmen fleet for Spratly development. Huang became a major part of the militia movement to mobilize Tanmen fishermen to build bigger vessels and venture to the Spratlys. By the early 1990s, the company included 150 militiamen and 21 vessels. Today it continues to expand under the current political agenda of transforming China into a “maritime power.”
Chinese media coverage of Tanmen fishermen often states that a large portion of incidents in the South China Sea between Chinese fishermen and foreign states is attributable to the Tanmen fishermen and maritime militia, whose members resolutely oppose “foreign encroachment.” The deputy station chief of the Qionghai City Fisheries Management Station told reporters in 2012 that 90% of the Chinese fishing vessels visiting the Paracels and Spratlys are from Tanmen Harbor, the remainder from Sanya City (also in Hainan Province) or Guangdong Province. While that particular claim is difficult to verify, the number of tense encounters between Tanmen fishermen and militia and the maritime forces of other South China Sea states—particularly the Philippines—certainly helps illustrate the point. Below is a brief, non-exhaustive list of events within the past three decades involving Tanmen fishing vessels, documenting their constant presence and activities in disputed waters and the resulting encounters, and periodic altercations, with other claimant states’ maritime forces. Of note, the incidents listed are as reported in the Chinese press. Instances of provocations by Tanmen fishermen or Chinese law enforcement vessels are therefore not included. …
PRESENTATION BASED ON AN EARLIER ARTICLE IN THE SERIES:
Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia: An Update,” one of five presentations of 2015-16 top-vote-receiving Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) articles from set selected by the think tank’s leadership at “CIMSEC Forum for Authors and Readers (CFAR) 2016 Forum: Maritime Security, Technology, and Foreign Policy,” CIMSEC, hosted at CNA Corporation, Arlington, VA, 24 March 2016.
Presentation based on award-winning article: 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.
Click here to watch the presentation:
RELATED CHINESE SOURCES:
FMPRC Spokesperson Lu Kang Apparently Denies Maritime Militia’s Role in “Rights Protection”—But China Daily Has Already Confirmed It, and China Military Online Republished Confirmation
This is an instance in which the saying “You can’t un-ring the bell” would appear to apply…
During Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Regular Press Conference on 7 April 2016, the following exchange occurred (key quotations underlined):
Q: Over the past few years, there have been frequent confrontations between fishing boats from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Taiwan region. Some of them have involved China’s coast guard authorities and even the military. Chinese fishermen have found themselves in danger when fishing in disputed waters. What is the Chinese government planning to do to avoid tensions in the future, in particular in the fishing industry? Is China using the country’s fishing fleet to assert its claim over relevant disputed waters?
A: I will take your second question first. There is no such thing as what you said.
On your first question, fishery disputes are not exclusive to this area. The Chinese government attaches great importance to fishery management and directs Chinese fishermen to conduct fishing operations in accordance with laws and regulations. Fishery cooperation is an important part of mutually beneficial cooperation between China and neighboring countries including coastal countries in the South China Sea. A very good approach of resolving disputes through friendly consultation has been developed over time. As for the disputes you mentioned, China and relevant countries are trying to solve them through friendly consultation.
Regardless of why Lu responded as he did, on 2 February 2016 China Daily published (and China Military Online reposted) a fascinating article that clearly acknowledged precisely such a role for China’s maritime militia. Given its extensive substance, it is reproduced here in full:
Source: China Daily Editor: Yao Jianing
Maritime militia in Sansha, Hainan province, demonstrate their training in July. [Guo Cheng / Xinhua]
As the People’s Liberation Army upgrades its navy, commissioning dozens of new ships under a watchful global eye, a less noticed force, China’s maritime militia, is also improving its operational capability.
Despite a history that can be traced back to as early as the 1970s, China’s maritime militia remains weaker compared with the land militia due to a lack of government funding and volunteers.
However, the situation has changed as a result of the country’s efforts to strengthen its maritime capabilities and safeguard its interests at sea.
According to the PLA Beihai City Military Command in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, the proportion of maritime militia in the city increased tenfold over the past two years, from less than 2 percent at the end of 2013 to more than 20 percent last year.
That enabled the city’s maritime militia to play a bigger role in drills organized by the PLA Navy – in 2013 it participated in only one such exercise, while it took part in four naval drills in 2014 and seven drills last year.
Most of the maritime militia is made up of local fishermen.
Senior Colonel Xu Qingduan, commander of the PLA Beihai City Military Command, said the city’s maritime militia has been required to take part in more air and naval exercises since 2014 while the land militia’s role has shrunk.
This fact pushed the command to negotiate with city government departments on the expansion of maritime militia, he said, adding that the government and the military decided to give more favorable policies and financial support to the civilian sea force.
A number of Navy veterans and experienced sailors have been recruited in Beihai’s maritime militia and 10 specialized teams have been established for transport, reconnaissance, obstacle clearance, medical service and equipment repair.
The maritime militia recently worked with Navy warships in a joint operation drill and successfully fulfilled their designated tasks, according to Xu’s command.
Beihai is not alone in improving its irregular maritime force.
Hainan’s Sansha, China’s youngest city that administers vast island groups and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea, is enhancing its maritime militia’s training and giving more duties to the force.
Local fishermen have assisted more than 250 law enforcement operations at sea over the past three years.
Jiangmen in Guangdong province is also organizing realistic sea operation exercises for local militiamen to strengthen their combat capability.
Statistics released by China’s fishery authorities showed the nation had nearly 21 million fishermen in 2013, the most in the world.
According to the latest information published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2012, China had nearly 439,000 motorized fishing vessels that could operate at sea.
This was followed by an unofficial article on 7 March 2016 in the South China Morning Post that nevertheless quoted an important Chinese official and a well-published Chinese expert concerning the use of “fishing vessels” to uphold Beijing’s ‘maritime rights and interests’:
Beijing is using trawlers to safeguard its claims in the region – but it is not the first country to recognise the influence fishermen can have
PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 11:11am
China is encouraging its fishermen to venture into the South China Sea by offering subsidies and security training, a government official said on Monday.
Luo Baoming, the Communist Party chief of southern province Hainan, said China’s rights in the hotly contested body of water were underscored by the traditional activities of Chinese fishermen there.
“Given the current situation in the South China Sea, fishermen have to protect their normal fishing operations in the region, because it is our ancestors’ fishing place,” Luo said at the annual parliamentary session in Beijing.
There were more than 100,000 fishermen in Hainan, which administers China’s vast claims in the sea, Luo said.
The Hainan government had provided resources such as shipbuilding and fuel subsidies to those involved in pelagic fishing, Luo said. It had also provided training in self-defence.
He said some Chinese fishing boats operated in high seas and displaced up to 400-tonnes of water – meaning they were bigger than some naval warships from Southeast Asian countries.
Hainan’s fishermen have documented proof of their navigation routes in the South China Sea dating back 600 years.
China has been known to use civilian ships as government proxies, often to harass foreign vessels, especially US naval ships, in the South China Sea.
Last October, when the US destroyer Lassen passed near the newly built artificial island on Subi Reef in the South China Sea, it was escorted by several Chinese naval warships and smaller vessels including merchant ships and fishing vessels. The fishing boats were “provocative”, crossing and sailing close to the Lassen’s bow, the US military website DefenceNews reported.
Encouraging fishing vessels to take part in protecting maritime rights is very common among other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, because it’s not banned by international law and the law of sea,” said Professor Wang Hanling, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He said Chinese authorities had discovered some Vietnamese soldiers had posed as fishermen to collect intelligence near some Chinese controlled islets in the South China Sea.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said that fisherman could play the most influential role in protecting a country’s maritime interests because they were the people most knowledgeable about the areas under dispute.
“In peacetime, fisherman can provide first-hand and the most up-to-date intelligence to the navy, while in wartime, they are the best at logistical tasks such as supplying food and water.”
Simon Denyer, “How China’s Fishermen Are Fighting a Covert War in the South China Sea,” Washington Post, 12 April 2016.
TANMEN, China — In the disputed waters of the South China Sea, fishermen are the wild card.
China is using its vast fishing fleet as the advance guard to press its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, experts say. That is not only putting Beijing on a collision course with its Asian neighbors, but also introducing a degree of unpredictability that raises the risks of periodic crises.
In the past few weeks, tensions have flared with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam as Chinese fishermen, often backed up by coast guard vessels, have ventured far from their homeland and close to other nations’ coasts. They are just the latest conflicts in China’s long-running battle to expand its fishing grounds and simultaneously exert its maritime dominance. …
At the end of March, Malaysia’s maritime authorities spotted about 100 Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by a Chinese coast guard vessel, in its waters. They were close to Luconia Shoals, less than 100 nautical miles from Malaysian Borneo but 800 nautical miles from China’s southern island of Hainan.
Early this month, Vietnam seized a Chinese ship that it said was supplying fuel to Chinese fishing boats in its waters.
The biggest flare-up came on March 20, when Indonesian officials boarded a Chinese fishing vessel close to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. As an Indonesian vessel began towing the boat to shore, a Chinese coast guard ship intervened to ram the fishing boat, pushing it back into the South China Sea — until the Indonesians released the tow line. …
The fishing vessel, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said, was operating in China’s “traditional fishing grounds,” though the incident occurred just a few nautical miles from the Natunas and around 900 nautical miles from Hainan. …
Economics is a major driving force for the expansion…to satisfy China’s ever-growing appetite for fish and its profitable and rapidly expanding fish export industry, already the world’s largest.
China’s per capita fish consumption was estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization at nearly 80 pounds in 2010, nearly double the global average, and is growing by roughly 8 percent a year. The fish industry employs nearly 15 million people. …
The government is also pushing the fishermen further from shore. It provides fuel subsidies, with higher rates for bigger boats and journeys to the Spratlys. The Hainan government heavily subsidizes the construction of larger, steel-hulled trawlers, and an expensive satellite system was provided virtually free of charge to about 50,000 vessels.
With it, Chinese fishing crews can send emergency signals to coast guard ships with their exact location if they run into trouble.
Fishermen said the government often organizes trips to the Spratlys, with coast guard vessels in attendance, especially when tensions are high.
“When our country needs us, we will go without a second thought to defend our rights,” [captain] Chen [Yuguo, a fifty-year-old Tanmen fisherman] said.
Embedded within the fishing communities and often organizing these trips are what China calls its “maritime militia” — civilians trained in small-arms use whose job it is to help defend the country’s maritime claims.
The Tanmen Maritime Militia is the most celebrated of the groups. It was honored with a visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2013, just after he took office.
Its members played a leading role in encouraging fishermen to travel to the Spratlys as far back as 1985. Their repeated trips to Scarborough Shoal culminated in a standoff with the Philippines in 2012 that ultimately saw China seize control of the submerged coral feature, and they sparred with their Vietnamese counterparts in 2014 when China towed an oil rig into disputed waters.
Their fishing boats also helped deliver construction materials for China’s land reclamation and construction program in the Spratlys. Last October, when the USS Lassen conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near Subi Reef, the Chinese navy kept a respectful distance, but smaller merchant or fishing vessels came much closer and even crossed the destroyer’s bow, Defense News reported. Experts say those boats were probably manned by militia members.
Andrew S. Erickson, at the U.S. Navy War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, calls them China’s “little blue men,” comparing them to Russia’s “little green men,” the armed men in unmarked uniforms who played a leading role in the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.
As well as giving Beijing a degree of deniability, their quasi-civilian status also complicates the rules of engagement for U.S. naval vessels. …
Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” CNA Corporation, 7 March 2016.
An important component of China’s local armed forces is the militia—an armed mass organization of mobilizable personnel who retain their normal economic responsibilities in daily civilian life. A reserve force of immense scale, the militia is organized at the grassroots level of society: its units are formed by towns, villages, urban sub-districts, and enterprises. It supports China’s armed forces in a variety of functions, and is seeing expanded mission roles as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to modernize. Militia units may vary widely from one location to another, as the composition of each one is based on local conditions (yindi zhiyi). A good example is the establishment of emergency repair units in areas with a strong shipbuilding industry. While the Maritime Militia is not a new addition to China’s militia system, it is receiving greater emphasis since China now aspires to become a great maritime power and because maritime disputes in China’s near seas are a growing concern.
No official definition of the Maritime Militia exists in the many sources the authors examined. However, in late 2012 the Zhoushan garrison commander, Zeng Pengxiang, and the garrison’s Mobilization Office described it concisely: “The Maritime Militia is an irreplaceable mass armed organization not released from production and a component of China’s sea defense armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions.” Of course, this description does not cover all aspects of the Maritime Militia. Members of the Maritime Militia are all primary militia (jigan minbing), as opposed to those in the less active ordinary militia (putong minbing). The former receive more frequent training, and they have more advanced skills for carrying out missions at sea.
Logically, the Maritime Militia is found in port areas with large fishing, shipbuilding, or shipping industries where experienced mariners or craftsmen provide a ready pool of recruits. Citizens can join land-based primary militia organizations when they are between the ages of 18 and 35 (or 45 for those who have special skills). The Maritime Militia also has relaxed policies for age requirements, with even more emphasis on their specialized skills in some localities (e.g., Yancheng City of Jiangsu Province extended the maximum age for its maritime militiamen to 55).
The only estimate of the size of the Maritime Militia obtained during the course of this research was from a source published in 1978, which put the number of personnel at 750,000 on approximately 140,000 craft. In its 2010 Defense White Paper, China stated that it had 8 million primary militia members nationwide. The Maritime Militia is a smaller unique subset since it performs many of its missions at sea. Since an accurate number is not available this chapter takes more of a grassroots approach and attempts to determine the average size of a unit at the local level. It is important to note that the Maritime Militia is distinct from both China’s coastal militia (shore based) and its naval reserve, although some coastal militia units have been transformed into Maritime Militia units.
Although this paper focuses on the current organization and employment of Chinese Maritime Militia organizations, it first puts this force into context by presenting a brief history of the Maritime Militia and a discussion of the changing role of militia in the Chinese armed forces as the PLA continues its transformation into a force that will win high-tech local wars under informatized conditions. Next, it examines the current role of the Maritime Militia in China’s goal of becoming a great maritime power, which will include both old and new mission areas. Because of the Maritime Militia’s localized roots, a section of this paper is devoted to surveying Maritime Militia activities in various provinces along China’s coast. This will give the reader a sense of this force’s scale and diversity. The remaining sections will address specific Maritime Militia modes of training, organization, and command and control, and will offer possible scenarios and implications. …
Toshi Yoshihara, “The 1974 Paracels Sea Battle: A Campaign Appraisal,” Naval War College Review 69.2 (Spring 2016): 41-65.
On 19 January 1974, the Chinese and South Vietnamese navies clashed near the disputed Paracel Islands. The short but intense battle left China in control of seemingly unremarkable spits of land and surrounding waters in the South China Sea. The skirmish involved small, secondhand combatants armed with outdated weaponry. The fighting lasted for several hours, producing modest casualties in ships and men. The incident merited little public attention, especially when compared with past titanic struggles at sea, such as those of the two world wars. Unsurprisingly, the battle remains an understudied, if not forgotten, episode in naval history.
But its obscurity is undeserved. Newly available Chinese-language sources reveal a far more complex naval operation than is commonly depicted in Western scholarship. Hitherto-unknown details of the battle illustrate how Chinese strategists tailored their tactics so as to coerce, deter, and defeat a rival claimant in the South China Sea. Notably, China employed a mix of conventional and irregular forces to meet its operational objectives. Such hybrid methods not only were common in Chinese naval history, but also foreshadowed the kinds of combined maritime warfare China has employed recently against its neighbors in maritime Asia, including Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Indeed, Chinese operations in the Paracels represent an archetype that could be employed again in the future. It thus behooves policymakers to pay attention to China’s naval past. …
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.
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 state control of these irregular forces is clearly documented 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. …
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.
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