23 December 2023

China’s Maritime Militia: The “Gray Zone” Force in the South China Sea

Honored to be cited regarding China’s “little blue men”/Maritime Militia. Importantly, tremendous credit is due to my CMSI colleagues. Among his many contributions, Conor Kennedy has pioneered pathbreaking research enabling U.S. Navy/Government understanding of this PRC Third Sea Force. Click here to read a compilation of his cutting-edge publications. And Ryan Martinson has contributed key insights regarding the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia as part of his leading scholarship on all three of Beijing’s major sea forces (Navy, Coast Guard, Maritime Militia). Click here for an anthology of his leading research.

Micah McCartney, China News Reporter, “China’s Maritime Militia: The ‘Gray Zone’ Force in the South China Sea,” Newsweek, 22 December 2023.

The maritime militia fleet is the vanguard of Beijing’s strategy to reshape the geopolitical landscape in the region, experts say, with its blue-hulled ships a frequent sight at territorial standoffs in the South China Sea.

The maritime militia is considered by analysts to be China’s third sea force alongside its navy and coast guard. …

Dubbed “little blue men” by Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the ships regularly join China’s coast guard in blockades against supply missions to a Philippine military outpost at the Spratly Islands’ Second Thomas Shoal, including the most recent tense showdown on December 10. A blockading militia ship was involved in a collision with a Philippine coast guard boat in October, and Manila accused another of using a sonic weapon against a fisheries bureau convoy on December 9.

The maritime militia is “a set of mariners and their vessels which are trained, equipped, and organized directly by the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) local military commands,” Erickson said in a 2017 interview with think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Essentially the militia is a “third sea force of China that in its own way plays a direct role in promoting China’s position in sovereignty disputes,” he said. …

Earlier this month, satellite images showed a substantial maritime militia presence at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, with the Philippine coast guard reporting more than 130 ships at their peak. …

Some experts observed on social media that the ships appeared to be manned by a skeleton crew and were remarkably clean for fishing ships. In addition, many were lashed together in a configuration called “rafting,” a gray-zone tactic that makes it more difficult to dislodge the occupying vessels.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to Newsweek‘s written request for comment by publication time.

“[The maritime militia] is eroding U.S. and allied interests by operating surreptitiously in the “gray zone” between peace and war, an approach Chinese sources term “War without Gun Smoke,” Erickson said.

Gray-zone operations use nontraditional forces or methods in pursuit of objectives without resorting to armed conflict.

The maritime militia can be divided into two main categories. One comprises purpose-built professional ships that receive funds for maritime militia affairs; the other, commercial fishing ships that meet the minimum requirements and are recruited through subsidies, according to CSIS.

Vessels in the first category are equipped with water cannons, reinforced hulls for ramming—and at least some apparently with caches of light weapons. Erickson cited open-source Chinese information about a ship’s interior that appeared to have dedicated weapons and ammunition storage rooms.

“And while at sea, these units—the most advanced units that are charged with intervention, involvement in international sea incidents or sensitive sea areas, they typically answer to the PLA chain of command, and they’re certain to do so when they’re activated for missions,” Erickson said in his interview with CSIS. … … …

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