19 October 2016

Countering Chinese Expansion through Mass Enlightenment

A timely and persuasive argument that the U.S. government can and should do far more to unleash the power of publicly-released information. Case in point: abundant open sources illuminate the activities of China’s Maritime Militia.

James E. Fanell and Ryan D. Martinson, “Countering Chinese Expansion through Mass Enlightenment,” Center for International Maritime Security, 18 October 2016.

From Newport to New Delhi, a tremendous effort is currently underway to document and analyze China’s pursuit of maritime power. Led by experts in think tanks and academia, this enterprise has produced a rich body of scholarship in a very short period of time. However, even at its very best, this research is incomplete—for it rests on a gross ignorance of Chinese activities at sea.  

This ignorance cannot be faulted. The movements of Chinese naval, coast guard, and militia forces are generally kept secret, and the vast emptiness of the ocean means that much of what takes place there goes unseen. Observers can only be expected to seek answers from the data that is available.

The U.S. Navy exists to know the answers to these secrets, to track human behavior on, above, and below the sea. While military and civilian leaders will always remain its first patron, there is much that USN intelligence can and should do to provide the raw materials needed for open source researchers to more fully grasp the nature of China’s nautical ambitions. Doing so would not only improve the quality of scholarship and elevate the public debate, it would also go a long way to help frustrate China’s current—and, to date, unanswered—strategy of quiet expansion. Most importantly, sharing information about the movements and activities of Chinese forces could be done without compromising the secrecy of the sources and methods used to collect it. …

The available information provides important clues about the nature and extent of Chinese activities at sea. This is true for all three of the sea services: the coast guard, the maritime militia, and the PLA Navy. …

Chinese sources also provide raw materials for understanding the activities of the second major instrument of Chinese sea power—the maritime militia. This force is comprised of civilians trained to serve military and other state functions. In peacetime, a segment of the militia, mostly fishermen, constitutes an important tool in Chinese maritime strategy. It sails to disputed waters to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty and justify the presence of the Chinese coast guard and navy. The militia also harasses foreign vessels, and helps protect China’s own.

China’s maritime militia is particularly active in the South China Sea. The Chinese press eagerly covers their activities in disputed waters, often revealing ship pennant numbers and the names of key militiamen. Websites owned by provincial, municipal, and county governments also highlight their local contributions to the “people’s war” at sea. Using such sources, Conor Kennedy and Andrew Erickson have tracked the militia’s activities at places such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and deciphered its role in pivotal events such as the 2009 assault on the USNS Impeccable. … 

Full text of the article cited here: 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.



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/>.


Daniel L. Kuester, “Naval War College Professors Testify on State of South China Sea,”Navy News Service, Navy.mil, 30 September 2016.

WASHINGTON (NNS) — The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) invited two U.S. Naval War College (NWC) faculty members to testify in Washington, D.C. on understanding and countering China’s growing maritime concerns.

Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI), and James Kraska, professor in the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, explained to the subcommittee the current situational framework and offered courses of action at the committee’s hearing titled “Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea.”

Erickson’s testimony centered on China’s growing involvement of their Maritime Militia, which he describes as the third maritime force in addition to the nation’s navy and coast guard.

The Maritime Militia is a civilian force posing as fishing boats and other noncombatants but is clearly under the operational control of the government, according to Erickson.

“China’s irregular sea force is one of the most important-yet most under-considered-factors affecting U.S. security interests in the South China Sea,” said Erickson in his testimony. “Many in Washington understand that China has the world’s second-largest blue water navy, some that China has the world’s largest blue water Coast Guard. But almost no one knows that China-drawing on the world’s largest fishing fleet-has deployed the world’s largest Maritime Militia; and virtually the only one charged with advancing disputed maritime claims.”

Kraska’s testimony focused on the legal issues of the region and enforcement of the rule of law in the oceans. The events unfolding in the area have regional and global consequences, he said.

“The South China Sea is the maritime fulcrum in East Asia, where the United States has treaty commitments to Japan, Korea, Thailand, Australia, and the Philippines, and legislative obligations to Taiwan,” testified Kraska. “The rule of law in the oceans provides an important force multiplier for U.S. military operations and diplomacy. Consequently, the navigation and overflight rules accepted in the region have great strategic consequence.”

Kraska also gave the committee direction on how the United States’ responses to China’s actions in the region could improve the situation in the long term.

“The right to transit through some Asian littoral areas is being effectively abandoned out of concern that China will react and create an incident,” he said. “But forgoing the right to be present in these areas makes it more likely that it will be impossible to reenter them later. Indeed, the cost of doing so now is higher than it would have been had the United States continuously exercised its rights; the cost tomorrow will be even greater unless action is taken now. China’s expectation and sense of entitlement to ‘own’ parts of the global commons increases each year they remain unchallenged.”

Erickson also gave advice on how to effectively respond to China.

First, Erickson asked for the U.S. to call out China’s Maritime Militia officially in public.

Second, Erickson proposed having the U.S. share information with countries at risk, and provide strategic reassurance to them.

Last, he called for the U.S. to communicate clearly with Chinese interlocutors and make it plain that any elements that ignore repeated warnings by U.S. vessels to desist from disruptive activities will be treated as military-controlled and dealt with accordingly, to ensure self-defense and unobstructed mission accomplishment.

To view the complete hearing, visit https://armedservices.house.gov/legislation/hearings/seapower-and-projection-forces-south-china-sea.

For more information, visit www.navy.mil, www.facebook.com/usnavy, orwww.twitter.com/usnavy.

For more news from Naval War College, visit www.navy.mil/local/nwc/.


Ronald O’Rourke, Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 8 June 2016), R42784.


p. 25

Use of China Coast Guard Ships, Fishing Boats/Maritime Militia, and Oil Exploration Platforms

China makes regular use of China Coast Guard (CCG) ships to assert and defend its maritime territorial claims, with Chinese Navy ships sometimes available over the horizon as backup forces.74 China has, by far, the largest coast guard of any country in the region, and is currently building many new ships for its Coast Guard.75 CCG ships are generally unarmed or lightly armed, but can be effective in asserting and defending maritime territorial claims, particularly in terms of confronting or harassing foreign vessels that are similarly lightly armed or unarmed.76 In addition to being available as backups for CCG ships, Chinese navy ships conduct exercises that in some cases appear intended, at least in part, at reinforcing China’s maritime claims.77China also uses civilian fishing ships as a form of maritime militia, as well as mobile oil exploration platforms, to assert and defend its maritime claims.78

78 See Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress [on] Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, pp. 3, 7; Ryan D. Martinson, “Shephards of the South Seas,” Survival, June-July 2016: 187-212; Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “From Frontier to Frontline: Tanmen Maritime Militia’s Leading Role Pt. 2,”Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), May 17, 2016; Matthew Carney, “China’s Secret Maritime Militia: Fishermen the Forward guard in South China Sea Dispute,”ABC News (Australia), May 8, 2016; Reuters, “Beijing Training ‘Fishing Militia’ for South China Sea,” Straits Times, May 2, 2016; Megha Rajagopalan, “China Trains ‘Fishing Militia’ to Sail into Disputed Waters,” Reuters, April 30, 2016; Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough (continued…)

p. 26

(…continued) Shoal Incident,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), April 21, 2016; Simon Denyer, “How China’s Fishermen Are Fighting A Covert War in the South China Sea,” Washington Post, April 12, 2016; Tom Hanson, “China’s Super Strategy to Dominate South China Sea: Little Green Fisherman,” National Interest, April 7, 2016; Teo Cheng Wee, “China’s Front-Line Fisherman,” Straits Times, April 5, 2016; Brendan Nicholson, “China’s Huge Fleet ‘Is Fishing for Information for Its Navy,’” The Australian, March 15, 2016; Minnie Chan and Liu Zhen, “Beijing Enlists Trawlers to Help Protect Maritime Rights in Disputed Waters,” South China Sea Morning Post, March 7, 2016; Yao Jianing, “Maritime Militia Increases Drills, Expands in Scope,”China Daily, February 2, 2016; Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Trailblazers in Warfighting: The Maritime Militia of Danzhou,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), February 1, 2016; Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Daring Vanguard: Introducing Sanya City’s Maritime Militia,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), November 5, 2015; Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Irregular Forces at Sea: ‘Not Merely Fisherman— Shedding Light on China’s Maritime Militia,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), November 2, 2015; Christopher P. Cavas, “China’s ‘Little Blue Men’ Take Navy’s Place in Disputes,” Defense News, November 2, 2015; Justin Chock, “China’s Non-Military Maritime Assets as a Force Multiplier for Security,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, September 22, 2015; Andrew S. Erickson and Conor Kennedy, “Directing China’s ‘Little Blue Men’: Uncovering the Maritime Militia Command Structure,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic & International Studies), September 11, 2015; “Beijing Expands Its Maritime Militia in South China Sea,” Want China Times, August 3, 2015; Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Tanmen Militia: China’s ‘Maritime Rights Protection’ Vanguard,” The National Interest, May 6, 2015; Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Meet the Chinese Maritime Militia Waging a ‘People’s War at Sea,” Wall Street Journal (China Real Time), March 31, 2015; James R. Holmes. A Competitive Turn: How Increased Chinese Maritime Actions Complicate U.S. Partnerships, Washington, Center for a New American Security, December 2012, East and South China Sea Bulletin 7, p. 1, accessed March 25, 2012, at http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/flashpoints/CNAS_bulletin_Holmes_ACompetitiveTurn.pdf; James R. Holmes, “China’s Small Stick Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, May 21, 2012, accessed October 3, 2012, at http://thediplomat.com/2012/05/21/chinas-small-stick-diplomacy/; Jens Kastner, “China’s Fishermen Charge Enemy Lines,” Asia Times Online, May 16, 2012; Carlyle A. Thayer, “Paracel Island: Chinese Boats Attack Vietnamese Fishing Craft,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 28, 2013, p. 1; Kurt Campbell, “Trouble at Sea Reveals The New Shape of China’s Foreign Policy,” Financial Times, July 22, 2014; John Ruwitch, “Satellites and Seafood: China Keeps Fishing Fleet Connected in Disputed Waters,” Reuters, July 27, 2014; Wendell Minnick, “Fishing Vessels in China Serve as Proxy Enforcers,” Defense News, August 17, 2014.


Report Summary

China’s actions for asserting and defending its maritime territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims in the East China (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS), particularly since late 2013, have heightened concerns among observers that China may be seeking to dominate or gain control of its near-seas region, meaning the ECS, the SCS, and the Yellow Sea. Chinese domination over or control of this region could substantially affect U.S. strategic, political, and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere.

China is a party to multiple territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, including, in particular, disputes over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal in the SCS, and the Senkaku Islands in the ECS. China depicts its territorial claims in the SCS using the so-called map of the nine-dash line that appears to enclose an area covering roughly 90% of the SCS. Some observers characterize China’s approach for asserting and defending its territorial claims in the ECS and SCS as a “salami-slicing” strategy that employs a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.

In addition to territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, China is involved in a dispute, particularly with the United States, over whether China has a right under international law to regulate the activities of foreign military forces operating within China’s EEZ. The dispute appears to be at the heart of incidents between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace in 2001, 2002, 2009, 2013, and 2014.

The U.S. position on territorial and EEZ disputes in the Western Pacific (including those involving China) includes the following elements, among others:

  • The United States supports the principle that disputes between countries should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.
  • The United States supports the principle of freedom of seas, meaning the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations in international law. The United States opposes claims that impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that belong to all nations.
  • The United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the ECS and SCS.
  • Although the United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the ECS and SCS, the United States does have a position on how competing claims should be resolved: Territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.
  • Claims of territorial waters and EEZs should be consistent with customary international law of the sea and must therefore, among other things, derive from land features. Claims in the SCS that are not derived from land features are fundamentally flawed.
  • Parties should avoid taking provocative or unilateral actions that disrupt the status quo or jeopardize peace and security. The United States does not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability.
  • The United States, like most other countries, believes that coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZs, but do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs.
  • U.S. military surveillance flights in international airspace above another country’s EEZ are lawful under international law, and the United States plans to continue conducting these flights as it has in the past.
  • The Senkaku Islands are under the administration of Japan and unilateral attempts to change the status quo raise tensions and do nothing under international law to strengthen territorial claims.

China’s actions for asserting and defending its maritime territorial and EEZ claims in the ECS and SCS raise several potential policy and oversight issues for Congress, including whether the United States has an adequate strategy for countering China’s “salami-slicing” strategy, whether the United States has taken adequate actions to reduce the risk that the United States might be drawn into a crisis or conflict over a territorial dispute involving China, and whether the United States should become a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). …


Ryan Pickrell, “How the US Should Respond to China’s ‘Secret’ Weapon,” The Daily Caller, 24 September 2016.

China’s naval and coast guard ships in the South China Sea tend to draw the most attention, but a more troublesome force has been hiding in plain sight for years.

China deploys three types of ships to enact its will in the South China Sea. These include navy “grey hulls,” coast guard “white hulls,” and maritime militia “blue hulls,” Naval War College Professor Dr. Andrew Erickson explained during a [House] Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday. 

Naval vessels — labeled People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships — are noticeably threatening and escalatory, so China often limits their deployment.

Coast guard and maritime law enforcement ships are seen as China’s go-to units in the South China Sea. Between 2010 and 2016, Chinese coast guard units were involved in 71 percent of the 45 [reported] incidents. China’s coast guard vessels are growing in size and are, in some cases, navy “grey hulls” which have been painted white, according to Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Bonnie Glaser, who also spoke at the hearing.

The third sea force, China’s maritime militia, is a paramilitary force that operates on the front lines but hides behind the façade of civilian operations. They are often presented as fishing trawlers, but they rarely behave as such. These maritime militia “blue hulls” are waging a campaign of “grey zone aggression.”

“Make no mistake, these are state-organized, developed, and controlled forces operating under a direct military chain of command,” Erickson stated emphatically during the recent hearing.

China’s maritime militia has been involved in numerous incidents. Maritime militia units made appearances during the 2009 harassment of a U.S. surveillance ship, 2011 sabotage of two Vietnamese hydrographic vessels, 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal, 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters, and 2015 harassment of the U.S.S. Lassen during a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP).

“China is generating a worrying new wave … in leading maritime militia development,” Erickson mentioned. “The Sansha maritime militia was established to be a professional paramilitary force first and foremost, with fishing a secondary mission at best,” he added.

Several new, large maritime militia vessels with reinforced hulls, external rails for the mitigation of collision damage, and water cannons have been deployed in the South China Sea. Such features are not necessary for standard fishing trawlers, but they work well for ramming other vessels and spraying other ships with water to force them out of certain areas.

A 1978 report estimated that China’s maritime militia consisted of 750,000 personnel and 140,000 vessels, but the current size of this force is unknown. A 2010 defense white paper reported that China had 8 million militia units; the maritime militia would be a smaller subset of that group.

China’s maritime militia is typically positioned on the front line, with naval and coast guard vessels stationed nearby for protection. China uses these vessels to skirt claims that it is militarizing the South China Sea. “This is a force that thrives within the shadows of plausible deniability,” argued Erickson.

Despite the present administration’s emphasis on pivoting to Asia and deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the U.S. government has not addressed this lethal third sea force. Erickson explained, “American officials must reveal the third sea force’s true nature and deeds. China’s maritime militia can only be as deceptive and plausibly deniable as we allow it to be through our own silence and our own inaction.”

China’s maritime militia is not really a “secret” weapon. It is a force that has been operating in the open for quite some time.

An English-language China Daily article openly referred to the “less noticed force, China’s maritime militia” earlier this year. An image in the article showed men in military drab training with firearms equipped with bayonets, but the article claimed that “most of the maritime militia is made up of local fishermen.”

Maritime militia units have taken part in many air and naval exercises since 2014, according to Senior Colonel Xu Qingduan.

“The maritime militia is … a component of China’s ocean defense armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions,” explained Zhoushan Garrison Commander Zeng Pengxiang.

Erickson asserts that the U.S. should acknowledge China’s maritime militia as a paramilitary force, revoking civilian protections for these vessels in the event of a conflict.

The U.S. should also call out China’s maritime militia publicly and share information with countries affected by the third sea force, Erickson said in his testimony. Furthermore, the U.S. should make it clear that units which ignore repeated warnings from U.S. vessels will be treated as military units and dealt with accordingly.

Plausible deniability is a strength, yet unmasking it will expose the maritime militia force to vulnerabilities. “We have to make it clear that we are wise to Beijing’s game,” said Erickson.

The South China Sea is a national interest for the U.S., as well as American allies and partners. “The issue is really about having a rules-based order, that if there are no international rules everybody agrees to and abides by, then you have chaos and anarchy in a region where we have enormous interests,” Glaser explained. China appears to be undermining that order to create its own regional norms.


Megan Eckstein, “Experts Advocate Harder Stance Against Illegal Claims in South China Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute News, 22 September 2016.

… The experts from the U.S. Naval War College and the Center for Strategic and International Studies agreed at a House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee hearing yesterday that adherence to maritime law in the South China Sea is important not only for regional security but also for maintaining law of the sea elsewhere on the globe.

In addition to unanimously supporting the U.S. ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the experts testified that U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) needed to be bolstered. …

Beyond agreeing that the U.S. needs to be more direct in countering illegal Chinese territorial claims, the panelists also discussed how China was attempting to enforce those claims – not primarily through the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s fleet of gray-hull navy warships, but through the white-hull coast guard ships and the rarely discussed blue-hull maritime militia ships.

“Make no mistake, these are state-organized, -developed and -controlled forces operating under a direct military chain of command,” Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, said of the maritime militia ships, which are essentially fishing trawlers outfitted with strengthened hulls, guardrails to protect the hulls when ramming other ships, and water cannons to harass nearby vessels.

“This is a force that thrives in the shadows of plausible deniability, and I tried to make the case today that it is well within our power to shine enough light to dispel a lot of those shadows,” he said at the hearing. During last year’s Lassen FONOPS patrol, “small commercial craft with the hallmarks of maritime militia vessels approached [Lassen] provocatively, having apparently anticipated its presence. Who knows what contingencies they might have been practicing for or what footage they might have been capturing for later misuse. So before China is able to put the United States or one of our regional allies or partners in a misleading but precarious position of appearing to confront ‘innocent civilian fisherman,’ American officials must finally publicly reveal the third sea force’s true nature and deeds.”

Erickson said he worried that the maritime militia may turn on a U.S. warship, leading to a Gulliver’s Travels-type scenario with …Gulliver taken captive by the tiny Lilliputians. To avoid being stymied by this fleet – which he called little blue men, much like Russia’s ambiguous little green men – Erickson said the next administration needs to publish a comprehensive policy statement on freedom of navigation and consider how China employs all its assets to block that freedom at sea.

“We cannot tolerate a situation in which their navy bear hugs our Navy in search of best practices and diplomatic cameo (opportunities) as a kind of a good cop, while their other two sea forces, the coast guard and the maritime militia, play the role of bad cops doing the dirty work in the South China Sea,” Erickson said.

“So I think by looking at this issue comprehensively, by raising attention to it in Congress and asking the administration to do the same, by communicating all of this with resolve to our Chinese interlocutors, I think we can create a much better baseline and understanding in the South China Sea. It won’t solve all the problems, but it will reduce risk.” …





Wednesday, September 21, 2016 – 2:00pm


2212 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515

House Armed Services Committee




Dr. Andrew S. Erickson, Ph.D. 
Professor of Strategy, China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College

Andrew S. Erickson, “The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia,” Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Hearing on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Washington, DC, 21 September 2016.

Click here to watch on YouTube.

I deliver my main testimony (statement) from 1:24:07–1:32:54.

I answer questions from Congressman Randy Forbes on how to address China’s Maritime Militia from 1:40:40–1:43:02, and on why the South China Sea matters to America and Americans from 1:47:02–1:48:22.

I reminisce with Congressman Rick Larsen about our April 2011 trip with four other Members of Congress to military, defense industrial, and government-related facilities in Beijing, Qingdao, Chengdu, and Shanghai and answer a question from him about the utility of a U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategy from 2:03:42–2:07:15.

Finally, at the invitation of Chairman Forbes, I offer closing remarks from 2:24:44–2:27:28.


Ms. Bonnie S. Glaser 
Senior Adviser for Asia and Director, China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Dr. James Kraska, S.J.D. 
Professor of International Law, Oceans Law and Policy, Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, U.S. Naval War College


Christopher P. Cavas, “China’s Maritime Militia—Time to Call them Out?Defense News, 18 September 2016.

… “China’s maritime militia is only as deniable for China as we allow it to be, and we don’t have to allow it to be deniable,” said Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, where he is a founding member of the China Maritime Studies Institute.

The militia, Erickson said, are controlled directly by the Chinese military, adding another degree of complexity to at-sea confrontations below that of the navy and coast guard. The craft, he said, are “working in close coordination with the other two more powerful sea forces or at least with their backing and coordination added as necessary.”

Erickson often refers to the militia as “little blue men” – a play on references to little green men” employed by Russia in Crimea and the Ukraine to insinuate military forces into a region without clear identification.

“There is plenty of evidence of the front-line elite Chinese maritime militia units answering specifically to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command, being entrusted with the fulfilling of specific state-sponsored missions with respect to participation in international sea encounters and incidents,” Erickson declared.

While the Chinese don’t widely advertise the militia in English-language publications or web sites, the Chinese Internet is rife with information confirming that craft involved in confrontations are militia-controlled, Erickson said. The evidence in some cases goes back years – he cited the example of a March 2009 confrontation in the northern South China Sea where several trawlers harassed the US intelligence ship Impeccable. One of those vessels, Erickson pointed out, bore a clear fishing registration number.

“You can run that number through the Chinese Internet and you’ve got clear documentation of its registration in a maritime militia organization,” Erickson said. “You can see very clearly that it was owned by someone named Lin Wei and reportedly piloted by him during the incident. Lin Wei is a cadre in the maritime militia of Sanya City, Hainan, from where the boats were dispatched.

“We have lots of nitty-gritty,” Erickson said, “specifying and backing this up with the authoritative Chinese sources, including Chinese provincial government sources, that you can piece together to document all of this — how the vessels are registered, who owns them, the status of that person as a member of the maritime militia, having a specific role in the maritime militia.”

While the total number of militia is not clear, the potential is large.

“China has the world’s largest fishing fleet, has thousands of fishing boats and a portion of these fishing vessels and a portion of the people who work on those fishing vessels and in related industries are specifically registered in the maritime militia,” Erickson said. “They receive some form of training and compensation, and in return, they have some sort of responsibility to be available to be called up for various types of state-sponsored activities.”

Erickson has frequently written about the Tanmen Militia, another organization also based on Hainan Island that has even been cited by Chinese President Xi Jinping as a model for maritime militia building.

“The current deputy commander of the Tanmen Militia is Wang Shumao,” Erickson said. “He is the operational commander when the militia goes out to participate as a fleet in international sea incidents. The two big international incidents we know it’s participated in are the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident, and a 2014 oil-rig incident. Wang was in charge of that. He’s been in the Tanmen Militia since the late 1990s and his risen up through the ranks.

“This is not a faceless organization. We can document it, provide many details on who’s leading it, what the organizational structure is, how they report, how it all works,” Erickson added. “I believe we already have enough data to make very conclusive durable connections using sources that, within China’s own system, are authoritative and legitimate. The only thing missing is for some US government official and report to state this officially.”

Erickson noted that except for one public reference he’s found uttered by the US Pacific Fleet commander, there seem to be no authoritative US government statements directly referring to the maritime militia. In the constant tit-for-tat arena of public relations and diplomatic maneuvering, the issue could become important.

“We could have a very difficult situation with China sending out a media information or disinformation campaign and the public at home and in the region buying China’s version of events or getting confused,” he said, adding that “this could also all come to a head in a particularly worrisome way at the start of the next presidential administration.”

The outgoing Obama administration, Erickson noted, has not taken the opportunity to call out the maritime militia.

“China may already lay the groundwork to create a distorting ‘CNN effect’ or ‘CCTV effect’ that lays a difficult trap for us,” Erickson said. “For all we know China is selectively collecting video and photographic images to be used as part of an information-operations campaign, so that at some future point they’ll be ready to selectively portray or mis-portray what they’re doing and what we’re doing. I see this potentially coming to a head in some sort of Chinese effort to make a freedom-of-navigation type of operation more difficult for us.”

The administration, Erickson said, should “go on the record and document publicly the reality, the nature and the approach of China’s maritime militia.” Such an effort could “create a measure of deterrence, showing the US is wise to China’s game.

“If we do our homework and act well in advance,” he added, “we can portray the facts accurately and thereby have a powerful narrative in our favor and deter Chinese adventurism and the causing of problems for us.”


Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Riding a New Wave of Professionalization and Militarization: Sansha City’s Maritime Militia,” CIMSEC, 1 September 2016.

On 21 July 2013, several dozen Sansha City “residents” stood before the city government building and swore oaths during an inspection by Mayor Xiao Jie (肖杰) and his military counterpart Garrison Commander Cai Xihong (蔡喜宏). Clad in militia uniforms and toting Type-56 assault rifles, the Sansha Maritime Militia was officially established to uphold Chinese interests throughout the Paracels and beyond. According to the Garrison Commander, Sansha City’s Maritime Militia are given five major missions in China’s struggle for maritime rights protection: regular declarations of sovereignty, conducting reconnaissance and patrols, cooperating with maritime law enforcement, participating in marine rescue, and supporting combat operations. They also repel foreign fishing vessels, safeguard islands and reefs, and provide disaster relief for civilians living there. Such missions represent important, evolving roles for the militia as China seeks to reinforce its claims to the South China Sea. Sansha’s Maritime Militia is on the frontlines of this effort given the municipality’s responsibility for administering all Chinese-claimed features in the South China Sea.

We previously examined in depth the maritime militia forces of Sanya, Danzhou, and Tanmen (Parts One and Two). No examination of the maritime militia of Hainan Province would be complete, however, without scrutinizing the Sansha Maritime Militia. As China’s newest, southernmost municipality, Sansha City is a critical node in China’s South China Sea strategy. Given its responsibility to administer all of China’s claimed features within the nine-dashed line by Beijing, Sansha lies at the apex of Chinese civilian presence in the South China Sea and efforts to exercise administrative control over China’s claimed waters. To better grasp the range of tools China uses to achieve such control, deeper understanding of Sansha’s Maritime Militia is necessary.

Most importantly, recent organizational developments concerning the Sansha Maritime Militia demonstrate a new professionalization and militarization of China’s elite maritime militia forces. Indicators of increased professionalization include hiring recently separated veterans, standardization and enhancement of training, and in some cases lack of clear fishing responsibilities in return for payment of salaries. Key indicators of increased militarization include preparations to make small arms rapidly available to deploying units according to mission requirements, construction of new bases, deployment for noncommercial purposes, and introduction of new classes of vessels with dedicated weapons and ammunition storage rooms, reinforced hulls, and water cannons.

Significantly, the Sansha Maritime Militia is being created from scratch using personnel that receive extremely generous guaranteed salaries—seemingly independent of any fishing or marine industrial activity on their part, a dedicated arrangement that we have not seen elsewhere. This represents a significant departure from what we have described previously regarding the maritime militias at Sanya, Danzhou, and Tanmen. These militias were formed and evolved over years if not decades, drawing upon the community’s resident skills and resources. The majority of such militia members engaged in fundamentally civilian economic activities with occasional additional purposes assigned through a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command, including military law enforcement-style activities. While these three elite militias remain important to Chinese “rights protection” activities, Sansha City’s new, purpose-built militia may in the future be even more so. …


Andrew S. Erickson, “China Open Source Example: Big Plans for Maritime Militia Base Buildup, as Seen from a Government Proposal Document,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 30 August 2016.

关于在文昌木兰头规划建设三沙战略腹地和民兵渔船停泊港的建议” [Proposal for the Planning and Construction of Wenchang Mulantou Rear Area for Sansha and Harbor for MooringMaritime Militia Fishing Vessels], submitted to the Hainan Provincial Government, 12 February 2015.

This proposal, as a result of a special assessment made by the Development Research Center of the State Council and submitted to the Hainan Provincial Government in early 2015, details plans to bolster what is apparently emerging as its leading state-owned militia fishing fleet: the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company. The proposal involves development of a new port to act as a “strategic rear area” for Sansha City, providing a logistics base for the 84 large steel-hulled militia fishing vessels allocated to Sansha City by Hainan provincial authorities. According to the proposal, ten of these vessels were delivered in 2015, with 70 more scheduled for delivery in 2016. Citing concerns regarding Woody Island’s fragile environment and the inability of Hainan’s other fishing ports to support this large militia fleet, the proposal argues for the appropriation of 20 square kilometers of coastal land in Wenchang City’s Puqian Township. Located on Hainan Island’s northern coast, this land is envisioned to be designated as a strategic rear area for Sansha City.

(Since this proposal’s promulgation, there have been multiple official indications that it has been formally approved; and that this project is therefore proceeding, with planning already well underway.)


关于在文昌木兰头规划建设三沙战略腹地和民兵渔船停泊港的建议编号: 532238    时间: 2015-02-12    发表人: bgtjyta

Original source URL: http://www.hainan.gov.cn/tianprint-rdjy–5740.html


David Axe, “Little Blue Men: China Launches a Stealth Invasion in the South China Sea,”The Daily Beast, 9 August 2016.

Beijing isn’t fighting for control of disputed waters with missiles and drones—it’s using Chinese coast guard and fisherman instead.

On Aug. 6, the Chinese government sent a stealth invasion force sailing into the disputed waters surrounding traditionally Japanese-occupied islands in the East China Sea.

But there wasn’t a single Chinese naval warship among the nearly 250 vessels that swarmed the Senkaku Islands, around 250 miles southwest of Japan. Instead, Beijing deployed 13 coast guard ships, some of them armed, along with an estimated 230 fishing vessels operated by government-sponsored maritime militiamen.

Beijing’s heavy reliance on [the maritime] militia is equally noteworthy—and, for China’s rivals, potentially very worrying. These “little blue men,” as U.S. Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson has dubbed them, have become the main combatants in China’s undeclared—and so far mostly bloodless—pseudomilitary campaign of expansion into the East and South China Seas.

Erickson’s nickname for China’s maritime militia references the so-called “little green men,” or incognito soldiers, that Moscow sent into Ukraine to back pro-Russian separatists.

There are clear advantages to mobilizing… [militias and] paramilitaries for what amounts to a military mission, Erickson said. In deploying government-controlled fishermen, Beijing gets “the bonus without the onus” as it tries to forcefully cement its claim to huge, fish- and mineral-rich swathes of the western Pacific. …

… in sending fishermen, China both maintains credible deniability regarding its true intentions and has the opportunity to portray the other side as overly forceful—or indeed to turn the tables, and cast the defender as the attacker.

The little blue men have popped up across the China Seas…. “Anyone seeing a pattern here?” Erickson quipped on Twitter. …

In a foreboding message to the Chinese people in the aftermath of the tribunal’s ruling on China’s South China Seas claims, Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan called for a “people’s war at sea” in order to preserve Chinese sovereignty. …

…when Beijing wants to take over an island without starting a war, it doesn’t need a fleet of warships. The little blue men can do the job.


下平 拓哉 [Capt. Takuya Shimodaira, JMSDF], “中国第3の海上兵力: 海上民兵” [China’s Third Sea Force: The Maritime Militia], 海上自衛隊幹部学校 [Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Maritime Staff College], 8 August 2016.

これからの中国の海洋におけるパワーを判断するためには、中国海軍、第2の海軍と言われる中国海警局(China Coast Guard)、そして海上民兵(Maritime Militia)の3つの研究が欠かせません。  米海大中国海事研究所(CMSI)における海上民兵研究のスペシャリストは、アンドリュー・エリクソン(Andrew S. Erickson)教授とコナー・ケネディ(Conor M. Kennedy)研究助手でしょう。特にケネディ氏は、この新しい研究分野におけるパイオニア的存在であり、CMSIでは親しみを込めて「ミスター海上民兵」と呼ばれているほど、緻密な分析研究を続けています。
エリクソン教授によれば、海上民兵に係る最近の特徴は、次のとおりです。  第1に、中国の主張を強硬に推し進めるために、単一ではなく、中国海軍、中国海警局、海上民兵の3つが協同する。


1) Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia: What It Is and How to Deal With It,” Foreign Affairs, June 23, 2016.

2)                    , “Countering China’s Third Sea Force: Unmask Maritime Militia before They’re Used Again,” The National Interest, July 6, 2016.

3)                    , “China’s Maritime Militia,” CNA, June 2016.





J. Michael Cole, China Opens Large Fishing Port to ‘Safeguard’ South China Sea Claims,” The News Lens International, 2 August 2016.

A new port facility in Hainan could serve as a base for China’s ‘maritime militias’ in the disputed South China Sea.

China on Monday officially opened a new fishing port at Yazhou, Hainan Province, to host fishing vessels operating in the disputed South China Sea.

Located approximately 50 km West of Sanya, the Yazhou Bay Central Fishing Port — the largest in Hainan and the closest to the Nansha Islands (Spratlys) — commenced limited operations in April 2015. The port spans a length of 1,063 meters and counts 11 functional berths that can currently accommodate a fleet of 800 fishing boats. Local officials say they hope to expand capacity to as many as 2,000. Construction was completed in June this year.

Starting on May 15, fishing boats stationed at Sanya Port were ordered to relocate to Yazhou. As per official plans, 468 Sanya-registered fishing boats and approximately 1,000 non-Sanya-registered fishing boats and 66 ice-making workshops and traders are to be transferred to Yazhou.

Yazhou Port is located about 260 km from the Xisha Islands (Paracels)… which “administers” an area of about 2 million square kilometers in the South China Sea. …

According to U.S.-based defense expert Andrew S. Erickson, the world has not paid enough attention to what he calls China’s “maritime militia,” or “irregular forces [that] have been an important element of Chinese maritime force structure and operations.”

An expanding maritime militia, Erickson says, is one of the many instruments at China’s disposal to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, allowing it to “vigorously pursue objectives without risking military conflict or creating an image of gunboat diplomacy.”

Erickson adds that Hainan’s maritime militia — and there is absolutely no doubt that Yazhou will serve as a base for those — is “poised to become even more significant,” adding that “they remain widely under-appreciated and misunderstood by foreign observers.” Particularly worrying, he observes, is the high possibility that such maritime militias could be used to undermine and harass freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) by the U.S. Navy operating in the South China Sea.


International Tribunal to Rule on South China Sea Case,” interviewed by Anthony Kuhn, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 11 July 2016.

Click here to listen to the program.

A decision in the case is expected on Tuesday. The Philippines challenged China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, through which about a 5th of the world’s commerce passes through.

Anthony Kuhn, “In a Chinese Port Town, South China Sea Dispute Is Personal,” Parallels, National Public Radio, 11 July 2016.

… At this time of year in Tanmen, many fishing boats are in the docks for repairs. A fishing ban from May to August gives the fish populations some time to recover.

Only a few decades ago, the town’s docks were mostly lined with wooden sailboats. Now many of them are 100-ton steel trawlers with electronic navigation systems. The government subsidizes the building of these boats. It has also recruited many of the fishermen into maritime militia units.

Near the docks, a billboard shows a picture of President Xi Jinping talking to local fishermen and praising their vanguard role in protecting China’s maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.

Critics charge that China has used these militia forces to build up artificial islands and reefs, to harass the ships of its Southeast Asian neighbors and the U.S.

Chinese fishing trawlers — possibly belonging to militia units — reportedly crossed the bow of a U.S. destroyer, the USS Lassen, as it conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea last October.

Chinese militia boats also rammed and destroyed Vietnamese trawlers in a fight over a Chinese oil rig operating in waters claimed by both China and Vietnam near the Paracels in 2014.

China and Vietnam both have maritime militias, notes Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy and expert on China’s navy at the U.S. Naval War College. He accuses China of trying to create confusion about whether the militia forces are military or civilian.

“By obfuscating and having these forces lurk in the shadows,” he argues, “China’s trying to have it both ways in a way that doesn’t accord with international law.”

Erickson says there should be no confusion: The militia takes orders from China’s military.

“It’s high time that the U.S. made statements in advance so that it’s clear to everybody that the U.S. is wise to China’s game,” he says, and that American naval vessels will not be deterred by the militia as they carry out their operations in the South China Sea.

When asked to clarify the status of the maritime militias, Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun did not respond directly, saying only that the militia forces engage in fishing and “maritime rights protection” activities in accordance with Chinese law. …


Episode 340: China’s Maritime Militia with Andrew Erickson,” Live Interview on Midrats Radio Program, Blog Talk Radio, 10 July 2016.

Click here to listen to the complete podcast.


Navy Milbloggers Sal from “CDR Salamander” and EagleOne from “EagleSpeak” discuss leading issues and developments for the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and related national security issues.

As China continues to slowly use a variety of tools to claim portions of her maritime near-abroad in the South China Sea and elsewhere, part of their effort includes what can almost be considered naval irregular forces – a Maritime Militia.

What is China doing with these assets, why are they being used, and what could we expect going forward as she taps in to a variety of assets to attempt to establish her authority?

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be Dr. Andrew S. Erickson.

Dr. Erickson is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). Since 2008 he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and is an expert contributor to theWall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report, for which he has authored or coauthored thirty-seven articles.

He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in international relations and comparative politics from Princeton University and graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College with a B.A. in history and political science. He has studied Mandarin in the Princeton in Beijing program at Beijing Normal University’s College of Chinese Language and Culture; and Japanese language, politics, and economics in the year-long Associated Kyoto Program at Doshisha University. Erickson previously worked for Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) as a Chinese translator and technical analyst. He gained early experience working briefly at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, the U.S. Senate, and the White House. Proficient in Mandarin Chinese and conversant in Japanese, he has traveled extensively in Asia and has lived in China, Japan, and Korea.

***Please note: unless otherwise specified, the views posted, reposted, or otherwise expressed on Dr. Andrew S. Erickson’s research websites, social media accounts, and other electronic and print sources are his alone and should not be construed to represent the official policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government. Additionally, retweets via Twitter do not imply endorsement in any way. Neither tweets nor retweets should be construed as political statements.***


China’s Third Sea Force—the Maritime Militia,” interviewed on “‘Farce’ Says China, in the South China Sea” program, The John Batchelor Show, 77 WABC Radio New York, 7:30 p.m. EST, 6 July 2016.

Click here for webcast, and listen to minutes 30:40-39:33.


Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Countering China’s Third Sea Force: Unmask Maritime Militia before They’re Used Again,” The National Interest, 6 July 2016.

As the South China Sea heats up, one of Beijing’s most important tools—its Maritime Militia or “Little Blue Men,” roughly equivalent at sea to Putin’s “Little Green Men” on land—offers it major rewards while threatening the U.S. and other potential opponents with major risks. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague announces its rulings on the Philippines-initiated maritime legal case with China on July 12—likely rejecting some key bases for excessive Chinese claims in the South China Sea—the Maritime Militia will offer a tempting tool for Beijing to try to teach Manila (and other neighbors) a lesson while frustrating American ability to calm troubled waters. This major problem with significant strategic implications is crying out for greater attention, and effective response. Accordingly, this article puts China’s Maritime Militia under the spotlight to explain what it is, why it matters and what to do about it.

To promote its disputed claims to features and maritime zones with increasing assertiveness, China is employing not one but three major sea forces—a potent three-pronged trident. In addition to what will soon be the world’s second-largest blue-water navy, and what is already the world’s largest blue-water coast guard, Beijing wields the world’s largest maritime militia, whose leading units are military-controlled forces trolling for territory. Most usefully in the peacetime coercion Beijing hopes to exclusively employ to advance its claims, China’s Maritime Militia remains the least recognized and understood of its sea forces. That needs to change—immediately.

Last October, when destroyer USS Lassen passed near Subi Reef, built up by Beijing in the Spratlys, merchant ships including fishing vessels maneuvered around it, having apparently anticipated its approach. China opposes such freedom of navigation operations categorically. In the future, to turn up the heat, while attempting to preserve plausible deniability and exploit perceived limitations in U.S. rules of engagement, China may employ Maritime Militia vessels more assertively to harass—and even attempt to thwart—such operations. Chinese propagandists might preemptively flood the airwaves with a misleading narrative of selectively edited footage of “civilian fishermen” being “unjustly attacked.” Leading People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) scholar and former deputy naval attaché to the United States Sr. Capt. Zhang Junshe seemed to be laying possible groundwork for just such a (mis)portrayal when he told Global Times that:

“waters adjacent to the Spratly Archipelago are the traditional fishing grounds of Chinese fishermen. For an American warship to barge into the adjacent waters constituted a threat to the normal operations of Chinese fishermen. The displacement of Chinese fishing vessels is small, and they have a shallow draft. They cannot withstand a collision. Americans show no remorse for their own actions or talk about the threat that a 10,000-ton warship represents for Chinese fishermen. Instead they hype up the ‘harassment’ of Chinese Maritime Militia. They are totally off base. There is absolutely no connection to the Maritime Militia.”

Yet, as of today, the U.S. government has demonstrated neither public awareness of the problem nor offered authoritative information to dispel such propaganda. Absent further preparations, this inaction could leave U.S. decisionmakers in a difficult position indeed. …


Andrew S. Erickson, Interviewed by Eleanor Hall, “Tensions between China and U.S. Intensify over South China Sea,” The World Today Program, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 29 June 2016.

Click here to listen to both key interview highlights (MP3 Download) and the full-length interview (Extra Audio).

The World Today is Australia’s leading midday current affairs radio program, broadcast across the country and throughout the region by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). An hour of current affairs background and debate from Australia and the world every Monday to Friday, 12:05 pm, ABC Local Radio and Radio National, The World Today is a comprehensive current affairs program which backgrounds, analyses, interprets and encourages debate on events and issues of interest and importance to all Australians.

Transcript of key interview highlights:

“Tensions between China and U.S. Intensify over South China Sea”

ELEANOR HALL: Well let’s go now to one of the world’s most critical and contested trade routes, the South China Sea.

The standoff there between China, its neighbours and the US has been intensifying in recent months, with the Chinese taking an increasingly acquisitive stance in the area.

And a specialist on China’s strategy is adamant that one of the keys to China’s success is a secretive militia based on China’s fishing fleet.

Dr Andrew Erickson is a professor of strategy and a founding member of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College.

He joined me earlier from Rhode Island to discuss his latest research.

ANDREW ERICKSON: The maritime militia appears to be an important part of China’s maritime security approach, nothing less than a third sea force for China.

China’s maritime militia is mostly effective for China and most corrosive to regional security and international norms when it’s able to lurk in the shadows below the level of awareness for the vast majority of outside observers and policy makers.

ELEANOR HALL: And how effective are these apparent fishermen against the huge United States naval vessels that are conducting their freedom of navigation trips through this area.

ANDREW ERICKSON: The capabilities of China’s maritime militia are not just theoretical. This is a force that has played a significant role in a variety of Chinese international sea battles, skirmishes, and incidents. … most importantly in recent years the 2012 direct participation of maritime militia forces in China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, and finally in 2014, maritime militia participation in repelling Vietnamese forces that were trying to challenge the stationing of the Chinese HYSY-981 oil rig in waters disputed with Vietnam.

And according to an article in Defence News, late last October when the USS Lassen was involved in a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, it’s reported that a number of civilian-like vessels anticipated its transit and approached it and that has all the hallmarks of maritime militia activity that in the future I worry could be dialled up.

ELEANOR HALL: And is there a particular power in this militia because it is not wearing a naval uniform?

ANDREW ERICKSON: At this point China’s trying to have it both ways. The maritime militia are in fact organised forces subordinate to a PLA, People’s Liberation Army, Chinese military, chain of command.

It appears Chinese officials are going to deny some of these things in a very implausible way. We are getting some very implausible stories here and I think it’s really high time that we got to the bottom of this and got down to the facts, so that’s what we’re trying to do now with our research.

ELEANOR HALL: You’ve been urging the US government to at least acknowledge the existence of this militia, why is the US reluctant to do this?

ANDREW ERICKSON: I don’t know why it hasn’t come up in a significant number of US official public statements. I’m optimistic that that will change in the near future. I think the fact that some of these Chinese official denials are as implausible as they are is testimony to the cost of the US not making a more conclusive official statement.

ELEANOR HALL: What do you think would happen were the US government to acknowledge the existence of this fishing militia? Do you think it would make it harder for the Chinese to then use them to build the islands and block the US vessels?

ANDREW ERICKSON: The more that this irregular force is called out and documented for what it is, I think the more power and the more effectiveness it will lose. It will lose plausible deniability, it will lose an element of surprise, and… Chinese officials may be extremely reluctant acknowledge or admit how it’s been developed in some ways.

I think… that as other countries take it seriously and their officials make statements about it, those very facts will make Chinese officials much more careful about how they think about developing and employing this third sea force of theirs.

ELEANOR HALL: Do you think that the US Navy should change its rules of engagement so that it can take action against what appear to be civilian vessels?

ANDREW ERICKSON: I am not a lawyer so I am not qualified to comment on the specific details of rules of engagement. My personal strong recommendation, and I think this should be communicated to China, is that any Chinese maritime militia-type elements that ignore repeated warnings by US Navy or other US government vessels to desist from disruptive activities, should be treated as militarily controlled and should be dealt with accordingly to ensure self defence and unobstructed mission accomplishment.

It seems clear to me that there should be ways to make it clear that US government vessels will act in a positive way and they’re not looking for some sort of unsafe encounter, but nor will they allow themselves to be stymied or thwarted or diverted by any kind of Chinese military-sponsored harassment even if it comes from ostensibly humble appearing maritime militia forces.

ELEANOR HALL: Could doing what you suggest, though, actually spark a military conflict in the area?

ANDREW ERICKSON: I think that both the US and China have very strong incentives and strong shared interests to not let tensions get out of hand. I think we’re in a period right now, at least in some security aspects, that I term ‘competitive coexistence’.

So, on the one hand our two countries have deep, shared economic interests, we have strong interests in counter-terrorism. These are strong bulwarks that I think can keep things from spinning out of control. The fact is China has equally strong interests not to allow any sort of unexpected encounter or incident to escalate out of control.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s Dr Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy and a founding member of the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.


Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Chapter 5: China’s Maritime Militia,” in Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, USN (ret.), ed., Becoming a Great “Maritime Power”: A Chinese Dream (Arlington, VA: CNA Corporation, June 2016), 62-83.


An important component of China’s local armed forces is the militia. 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. 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 ocean defense armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions.”

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. However, an accurate number is not available. 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.

History of China’s maritime militia

China’s militia system originated before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, but the system of making numerous state-supported maritime militias out of the coastal populations was not fully implemented until the Communists began to exercise greater control of the coastline in the 1950s. This segment of China’s population had been relatively isolated from events on land and was subject to Japanese and Nationalist control in the decades before CCP rule was established. The CCP targeted the fishing communities, creating fishing collectives and work units, enacting strict organizational control, and conducting political education.146 Factors motivating and shaping this transformation included:

  • The PLA’s early use of civilian vessels
  • The need to prevent Nationalist Chinese (ROC) incursions along the coast
  • The need to man the maritime militia with fishermen, as there were too few other experienced mariners
  • Confrontations with other states’ fishing and naval vessels, due to the depletion of fishery resources.
  • The need to fish farther from shore, in contested waters.
  • The transformation from coastal defense militias to the at-sea maritime militia
  • Overall trends in militia development, including specialization, emergency response, technological units, and increased orientation towards supporting each of the PLA branches.

The maritime militia has played significant roles in a number of military campaigns and coercive incidents over the years, including:

  • The 1950s support of the PLA’s island seizure campaigns
  • The 1974 seizure of the western portion of the Paracels
  • The 2009 Impeccable incident
  • The 2011 harassment of Vietnam’s survey vessels (Viking II and Binh Minh)
  • The 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff (Tanmen Militia present)
  • The 2014 Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig standoff. …


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…. …


萧雨 [Xiao Yu], “南海仲裁在即 潭门渔民集体封口” [South China Sea Arbitration ImminentTanmen Fishermen Collective Seals Mouth],  美国之音 [Voice of America], 23 June 2016.


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:


Florence Looi, “Looking for China’s Maritime Militia,” Al Jazeera, 4 June 2016.

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. …


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. …



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:


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.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang's Regular Press Conference on April 7, 2016

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:

Maritime Militia Increases Drills, Expands in Scope

Source: China Daily Editor: Yao Jianing

2016-02-02 17:160

Maritime militia in Sansha, Hainan province, demonstrate their training in July. [Guo Cheng / Xinhua]

Maritime militia in Sansha, Hainan province, demonstrate their training in July

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’:

China Enlists Fishermen’s Help to Protect Maritime Rights in Disputed South China Sea

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

By Liu Zhen and Minnie Chan

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.


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.


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


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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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