Trailblazers in Warfighting: The Maritime Militia of Danzhou

Exhibit 1: Sendoff Ceremony for Danzhou’s Flotilla.

By Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy

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.

Exhibit 2: Map of Hainan Province—Danzhou Militia’s Homeport Baimajing Located in Red Box. Image Credit: China Maps
Exhibit 2: Map of Hainan Province—Danzhou Militia’s Homeport Baimajing Located in Red Box. Image Credit: China Maps

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.

In 1974, Vietnamese commanders were forced to choose between open conflict and a Chinese fait accompli. When confrontation began and PLA Navy assets became involved, Saigon reached out to its ally, Washington, for assistance. However, perceiving Sino-American rapprochement as more critical than the fate of a few features in the South China Sea, the United States did not come to the aid of the Vietnamese. Today, Second Thomas Shoal presents a similar potential flashpoint. There, Chinese maritime militia forces might seek to dislodge the few Philippine marines stationed on the Sierra Madre. With Mischief Reef—an established Chinese fishing outpost that has recently undergone large-scale reclamation and militarily-relevant infrastructure development—only 15 miles away, maritime militia vessels could be rapidly deployed to Second Thomas Shoal in greater numbers. The Paracels Battle began with the appearance of two Chinese trawlers in the waters around Robert Island, approximately 54 miles from the nearest harbor on Woody Island. Closer in proximity to Second Thomas Shoal, Mischief Reef provides an even more advantageous base of operations and supply for militia action than Woody Island did, should conflict occur.

Exhibit 3: Personnel aboard Trawler 402 Bearing Arms.
Exhibit 3: Personnel aboard Trawler 402 Bearing Arms.

Building on Glorious History: “Catching Government Fish and Casting Nets of Sovereignty”

Economic and institutional structures, which form the basis and strength of the maritime militia’s organization, quite literally underpin Danzhou’s maritime militia. As a state-owned enterprise, the South China Sea Fisheries Company and its successor organizations have been a major presence, both in Baimajing fishing port and province-wide. Having operated the harbor’s fishing pier for over five decades under various names, currently Hainan Provincial Marine Fishing Industry Group, it is now one of Hainan’s largest marine fisheries companies.

That said, the company’s close ties with provincial and local governments, as well as China’s broader political and economic development, have imposed a complex organizational history. In 1981, the company divided organizationally into separate entities, with personnel, and vessels apportioned between Hainan Island and Guangzhou; to the best of our knowledge, these geographic entities have subsequently enjoyed commercial ties, but have never re-merged organizationally. In 1988, Hainan Island and China’s wide-ranging South China Sea claims were separated from their previous administrative position within Guangdong Province to become a province in their own right. The Hainan branch of the South China Sea Fisheries Company changed its name to Hainan Provincial Marine Fishery Corporation (海南省海洋渔业总公司). Inspired by the designation of Hainan as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at the time of provincial formation in 1988, and its subsequent economic boom, the company began investing heavily in real estate. In 1992, Hainan’s real estate bubble burst, sending the corporation into severe debt.

Today’s success is built on yesterday’s reform. Heavily indebted, and entering bankruptcy, Hainan Provincial Marine Fishery Corporation suspended operations in 2003. In 2006, however, Deputy Provincial Governor Wu Changyuan (吴昌元) held special meetings to address the company’s collapse. A new company, the South China Sea Modern Fishery Company (南海现代渔业公司), was established. Several years of restructuring returned the enterprise to profitability.

In 2009, Danzhou’s fishing enterprise entered its latest incarnation as Hainan Provincial Marine Fishing Industry Group. It has re-established its presence across Hainan, revamping existing subsidiaries in places like Baimajing and Tanmen Village, as well as initiating development projects elsewhere, such as in Ledong’s Lingtou Port. This new company is intended to serve as a leading platform for government investment into Hainan’s marine fishing industry and fishing harbor development. The company and provincial government have major plans for fisheries development in the South China Sea, starting with fishing harbor infrastructure projects and the organization of multiple fishing flotillas to operate in the Spratlys. The Hainan provincial and Danzhou municipal governments together have reportedly invested over 200 million RMB ($30.4 million) in the construction of Baimajing’s harbor, including expanded piers and deeper berths to facilitate large-scale aquatic product processing. Recent municipal committee meetings reaffirmed the government’s support for Baimajing’s harbor development. The aforementioned flotilla operations were introduced in our last piece analyzing Sanya’s maritime militia, foremost among them the Fugang Fisheries Co. Ltd., also among the province’s five leading fisheries enterprises. All fishing vessels seeking to operate in the Spratlys must join these group formations, according to article ten of China’s “Nansha Fishery Regulations.” The regulations stipulate rules for fishing vessels operating south of 12-degrees North latitude in the South China Sea, including requirements for each formation to designate and operate a command and communications vessel for reporting to shore-based stations. This could be a single trawler, or a larger command and supply ship supervising the other trawlers.  

The South China Sea Modern Fisheries Group’s ties with the military did not begin with the 1974 action in the Paracels. As early as 1961, its predecessor, the South China Sea Fisheries Company, established a People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) to be managed directly by the Hainan military district. In 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, the South China Sea Fisheries Company came under direct management by the military and received 80 sailors from the PLA Navy. It officially established a militia headquarters in 1975, possibly linked to its success in the Paracels Battle as well as the national political campaigns of the time.

Called Hainan Provincial Marine Fishing Industry Group today, the company has not forgotten its glorious past. Its website proudly recounts its predecessor organization’s participation in the Paracels Battle, and proclaims that it will carry out the nation’s policy of “protecting sovereignty” and “emphasizing presence” in the South China Sea through its current focus on fishing port development and dispatching supply ships (capable of supporting trawlers from multiple localities) to fishing grounds in the Spratlys. It further states: “Grasp the principles of ‘being both military and commercial, both soldiers and civilians, combining war and peacetime and civilian-military dual use’ to organize a Spratly fisheries supply fleet. [They will] organize and drive the fishermen masses to go to the Spratlys on a large scale and open up new fishing grounds, ‘catching government fish and casting nets of sovereignty’ to display sovereignty and let the Chinese flag wave over waters in the Spratlys” (抓紧以 “亦军亦企、亦兵亦民、平战结合、军民两用” 的原则组建南沙渔业生产补给船队,组织和带动群众渔民大规模地赴南沙开辟新渔场,“打政治鱼、撒主权网”,让五星红旗飘扬在南沙海域,彰显主权).

One news report states that the company plans to establish 20-30 of the aforementioned “Nansha Fishery Regulations”-mandated flotillas, each with a large command and supply ship leading 30 fishing vessels. The article elaborates that these supply ships will “try out militia reserve structures” (实习民兵预备役编制). Together with the local government, the company is focusing on building the necessary infrastructure—deeper harbors, piers, ice factories, etc.—to support these operations. Danzhou’s Baimajing and Sanya’s Yazhou Fishing Port are both officially ranked as “core fishing ports” (中心渔港). China’s fishing ports are divided among four tiers based on their size and capacity; core fishing ports receive national-level investment and guidance. Based on the activities of Sanya’s Fugang Fisheries Company, it can be inferred that the South China Sea Modern Fisheries Group, with its similarly close government ties, may assume future maritime militia responsibilities.

Danzhou’s flotilla made its inaugural “rights protection” expedition to the Spratlys, departing Baimajing’s piers in May 2013. Thirty 100-plus-ton trawlers led by a 4,000-ton command and supply ship and a 1,500-ton cargo ship made a 40-day trip to the Spratly fishing grounds. Interestingly, the two ships leading them—bearing hull numbers Qiong Sanya F8138 and F8198—belong to a Sanya-based company. This indicates a degree of cooperation between areas to mount these fishing expeditions, potentially reflecting broader government guidance. En route to the Spratlys, the flotilla experienced a nighttime encounter with two law enforcement vessels of unknown origin, likely Vietnamese, but were able to proceed without incident.

Exhibit 4: View of Danzhou Harbor from Baimajing, With Fishing Fleet, Maritime Law Enforcement, and Navy Ships.
Exhibit 4: View of Danzhou Harbor from Baimajing, With Fishing Fleet, Maritime Law Enforcement, and Navy Ships.

While the Danzhou excursion was modeled expressly on the formation described above, other entrepreneurs have also promoted ideas to boost local fishing fleets’ ability to operate in the Spratlys, centered on the same concept of using a mobile base of operations to sustain extended fishing expeditions. The Fucun Collective (福村合作社), located in Baimajing township, submitted proposals to the provincial government to help it expand its current fleet of fishing vessels, and to begin a major overhaul of its operations within five years. To facilitate large-scale fishery operations, Fucun requested government assistance for the purchase of a 10,000-ton mother ship and seven 1,000-ton subordinate shuttling supply ships. The mother ship would conceivably function as a command center, floating base, and transfer dock to coordinate, supply, and process the catches of, numerous smaller fishing boats. By contrast, much of Hainan’s fishing fleet is still composed of small, wooden “hook industry” (钓业) vessels incapable of reaching the Spratlys. Relying on such a large platform and accompanying supply ships could potentially allow numerous smaller craft to operate more permanently in the Spratlys, unlike the temporary expeditions of flotillas composed of larger trawlers. The Hainan Oceanic and Fisheries Department’s conditional response to the proposal did not deny assistance outright, but rather underscored and enforced its growth control policies, whereby collectives must first dispose of old, obsolete vessels before building new hulls. This example suggests the extent of local initiatives to increase presence in the Spratlys, as well as what the provincial government deems acceptable measures.

As China attempts to resuscitate its depleted coastal fisheries and becomes increasing reliant on distant water fishing, creative entrepreneurs like those in Fucun are proposing projects that would facilitate the movement of its more numerous smaller-sized fishing trawlers to the Spratlys in search of better fishing grounds. Although this could conceivably alleviate the strain on coastal fisheries, it runs counter to the larger national effort to modernize Chinese fishing fleets overall, and to embed reliable maritime militia capabilities within some of them specifically. Instead of fostering continued reliance on smaller, wooden fishing vessels that cannot sustain operations far from shore, the government prefers to support larger tonnage, steel-hulled vessels that are more capable of distant water fishing—and may effectively double as sovereignty support tools in the South China Sea. Modern fishing vessels can endure rougher seas, collisions with foreign vessels, and employ more advanced equipment (communications), thereby granting maritime militia on such vessels greater capacity to serve in a variety of mission roles. While attempting to manipulate or parry policies from above to better suit one’s local or even personal interest is a time-honored technique vis-à-vis China’s gargantuan bureaucracy, sustained government prioritization of maritime militia development to serve state sovereignty and security interests at sea appears to be winning the day.

In further evidence of sustained, systematic support for maritime militia building, numerous articles on the maritime militia by local military officials urge local governments to establish a legally-based support system to protect the militia and supply much needed economic incentives for militia units to actively fulfill their duties. He Zhixiang, head of the Guangdong Military Region mobilization department, which oversees Hainan’s mobilization work, penned an article in early 2015 exhorting governments to purchase insurance and provide financial assistance according to “Naval Personnel At-Sea Standards” (海军海员出海标准) for fishermen recruited into the maritime militia. The Nansha Fishing Regulations provide rules for fuel subsidies for fishing fleets operating in the Spratlys, as well as compensation if they are harmed by foreign vessels. There are also benefits specific to the maritime militia, such as additional compensation for wages forgone through participation in training or missions. Militia members are eligible to receive superior insurance subsidies, according to a Hainan Daily news article. It states that Hainan’s provincial Department of Human Resources and Social Security plans to include fishermen in the work-related injury insurance system and provides greater insurance subsidies for the maritime militia. Danzhou, for instance, provides its militia with a “disability pension” of 56,400 RMB ($8,636) a year if they become disabled in the line of duty—a sum that might well be considered significant in a fishing village with a relatively low cost of living.

This figure is not much less than the pensions to which People’s Police (人民警察), regular municipal law enforcement) or state personnel/functionaries (国家机关工作人) are entitled if similarly disabled in the course of their work. This is part of a broader pattern of implementation of national-level law entitled “Measures for the Administration of Disability Pensions” (伤残抚恤管理办法), whereby reservists, militia, and migrant workers harmed in war, field exercises, training, or other service duties are categorized together and entitled to equivalent disability pensions. Ongoing PLA legal reforms may further shape these and other laws and regulations concerning China’s maritime militia. The leaders of Danzhou, and many other localities, appear prepared to spend considerable time and effort finding the right mix of economic incentives, aggrandizing propaganda, and patriotism to mobilize the maritime militia under their jurisdiction.

The Gray Zone

Hainan’s maritime militia are assigned an important role in protecting China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, but they could also be of service in a variety of roles that fall somewhere between peace and war. Fishing flotilla formations deployed with increasing frequency in the South China Sea greatly increase the organizational efficiency of the maritime militia units that sometimes participate in their operations. For China’s maritime law enforcement and naval forces, these formations can increase their ability to monitor large numbers of vessels, since the command and supply ships provide dedicated on-site management and communications with the fishing fleet. Furthermore, even if only the supply ships had militia organizations on-board, those militia members could conceivably requisition some of the flotilla’s trawlers and mobilize them for specific operations. On scene requisition could enable reconnaissance or rights protection actions without delay, allowing for an immediate response to foreign incursions into Chinese-claimed waters. Maritime militia participating in a flotilla operation in the Spratlys could also provide an excellent source of reserve manpower and vessels for assisting PLA Navy operations farther away from the support of their bases on China’s southern coast.  

In recent years, like many other Hainan province localities, Danzhou has increased emphasis on maritime militia building. Danzhou’s leadership regularly issues statements to support strengthening the maritime militia. One example is that of former PAFD head Fu Huaming, who included maritime militia building as an important focus when giving orders to the heads of Danzhou’s grassroots PAFDs in 2011. To gain the military’s support for Danzhou’s development, Fu joined a delegation of Danzhou officials to the provincial military district headquarters in early 2014. Zhang Qi, formerly Party Secretary of Danzhou and now Party Secretary of maritime militia powerhouse Sanya City, reportedly included in his remarks during the visit the full extent of Danzhou’s maritime militia building efforts. This suggests that the performance of local officials in militia building, already one of their responsibilities, helps to some degree in currying favor with local military officials. PLA support could bring greater benefits to Danzhou’s development projects—especially since, located on Hainan’s relatively arid, isolated west coast, they receive far less tourism than popular destinations like Sanya City. Perhaps in part thanks to his militia-building efforts, PAFD head Fu Huaming was subsequently promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff of the Hainan provincial military district. As the political tide of the “Maritime Power” development strategy officially promulgated by paramount leader Xi Jinping himself swells, it appears that maritime militia building may be an important link in the machinations of local political and military officials looking to rise up the provincial ranks.

Amid these broader trends, Danzhou’s new leadership has taken up the mantle of local militia building. During a PAFD transfer-of-leadership meeting in late 2014, in which Danzhou Party Secretary Yan Chaojun was appointed first secretary of the PAFD, Yan extolled Danzhou’s location on the “frontier” (前沿) of the South China Sea. He called for “strengthening the national defense reserve forces, with maritime militia building of particular importance” (加强国防后备力量建设尤其是海上民兵建设极其重要). In early 2015, Danzhou’s leadership held a meeting on militia reserve work, declaring that the city would strengthen the maritime militia and land-based emergency response militia in “preparation for military struggle in the South China Sea” (南海军事斗争准备). The support of both local party and military leaders will determine Danzhou’s maritime militia growth and effectiveness, as they share a direct responsibility for militia building within their jurisdiction.

Exhibit 5: Standing on Baimajing’s Pier in December 2015, PAFD Political Commissar Zhang Yun Presents Danzhou’s Maritime Militia Work to Deputy Provincial Governor Lu Junhua.
Exhibit 5: Standing on Baimajing’s Pier in December 2015, PAFD Political Commissar Zhang Yun Presents Danzhou’s Maritime Militia Work to Deputy Provincial Governor Lu Junhua.

The Central Government has signaled the importance of maritime militia building to local governments. In January 2014, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee held the “Maritime Mobilization – 1312” symposium in Hainan’s Qionghai City to discuss the province’s maritime militia. During this event, maritime militia rights protection and warfighting support exercises were held at Tanmen Village with Danzhou’s maritime militia detachment featured prominently. The exercises extended from October 2013 to January 2014. Former Danzhou Deputy Party Secretary Wang Qiongzhu convened a meeting in Danzhou to review the results of the symposium and their maritime militia’s participation. Wang Qiongzhu declared maritime militia building to be a part of national maritime strategy and “an act of the state.” With plans to build three new maritime militia units, Danzhou has completed construction of its first unit in Baimajing. It has been over four decades since trawlers from Baimajing were dispatched to the Paracels, where they supported China’s victory against the Vietnamese. Today, we are witnessing a maritime militia revival, with the avowed purpose of both protecting China’s rights and supporting active duty forces in military struggle.

In probing potential wartime applications of China’s maritime militia, it is important to consider that China’s militia is an official component of its armed forces. Militiamen are not independent citizens independently organizing themselves into militia, or self-directed fishermen driven extemporaneously by personal patriotic fervor. Rather, in today’s China, local government and PLA organs are responsible for militia building, and will mobilize their local militia in times of emergency, as directed by higher authorities in a process involving the PLA chain of command. The idea of the militia often evokes old Maoist ideas about People’s War, an approach to conflict that utilizes Chinese traditional advantages in terrain, population, and fighting stratagems. China’s military still embraces the concept, and has adjusted its content to suit changes in modern warfighting. Beijing included the concept of “Maritime People’s War” (海上人民战争) in its 2006 Defense White Paper, stating that its navy was “exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war.” Ge Yonghong, head of the Nanjing Military Region’s mobilization department, formulated the military actions encompassed by Maritime People’s War, or the related concept of “People’s War at Sea” (海上的人民战争), most of which assign important roles to the militia. While official Chinese sources typically do not describe the Paracels Battle explicitly as an example of Maritime People’s War, the clear use of classic People’s War tactics in the battle itself may further inform our understanding of possible Chinese employment of maritime militia in a potential future crisis or conflict in the South China Sea. Specifically, the combined employment of the main forces (the PLA Navy) with mobilized local civilian forces (the militia) using unconventional tactics to overcome a superior enemy force exemplifies the People’s War approach. Despite the marked differences in China’s armed forces between 1974 and the present, its continued emphasis on the maritime militia suggests the possibility of a repeat scenario today vis-à-vis disputed flash points such as the Spratly Islands.

Today Danzhou’s maritime militia forces and the fishing organizations in which they are based are being revitalized and developed further, even as they enjoy increasing interconnections with counterparts in Sanya and Tanmen. The last is home to another major maritime militia, the subject of the next article in our series on the leading maritime militias of Hainan Province. This third, forthcoming, article will explore the maritime militia of Tanmen Village, north of Bo’ao on Hainan’s east coast. It will build on our previous scholarship in this area, which traces a Tanmen maritime militia company’s designation as a “model militia work unit” (民兵工作模范单位), “militia advanced grassroots work unit” (民兵基层建设先进单位), and “advanced border and coastal work unit” (边海防工作先进单位) following an official visit to Tanmen’s fishing harbor and maritime militia by Xi Jinping in April 2013. Different levels of PLA command have all recognized the Tanmen maritime militia for their perseverance, bravery, and patriotism in protecting China’s claimed sovereignty in the South China Sea. In keeping with general incentives for Chinese officials to learn from Party-and-government-sanctioned examples, a delegation including Sansha City’s Mayor and Party Secretary Xiao Jie has visited Tanmen, and then-Danzhou Party Secretary Zhang Qi led a delegation there in November 2013. Beyond the basics of militia development and mobilization, what might these officials be learning about and be planning for their own forces to prepare for? We have traced direct Tanmen militia involvement in international controversies and incidents, including “island construction” in the Spratlys and the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff.

Stay tuned for further analysis of China’s leading irregular forces at sea!

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at and The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Conor Kennedy is a research assistant in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA at the Johns Hopkins University – Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

Publication Release: Distributed Lethality 2015 Week Compendium

Released January 2016

Distributed Lethality is a concept announced by U.S. Navy leadership in January 2015 to explore the warfighting benefits of dispersing surface combatants. CIMSEC launched a topic week in July 2015 to focus analysis on this new concept. This compendium consists of the articles that featured in the topic week.

Authors:Distributed Lethality cover-page001
James Davenport  
Chris O’Connor
Eric Gomez
John Salak
Michael Glynn
Steven Wills
Ryan Kuhns
Jimmy Drennan
Majorie Greene
Thomas Rowden

Sally DeBoer
Jimmy Drennan
Dmitry Filipoff
Matt Hipple
Matthew Merighi
John Stryker

Download Here

Distributed Lethality: A Cultural Shift By James Davenport
Distributed Endurance: Logistics and Distributed Lethality By Chris O’Connor
Distributed Basing: The Key to Distributed Lethality’s Success in the Western Pacific By Eric Gomez
Weaponized Hovercraft for Distributed Lethality By John Salak
Airborne Over-The-Horizon-Targeting Options to Enable Distributed Lethality By Michael Glynn
LCS: The Distributed Lethality Surface Combatant By Steven Wills
Missing an Opportunity for Innovation: A Conceptual Critique of Distributed Lethality By Ryan Kuhns
Distributed Lethality’s C2 Sea Change By Jimmy Drennan
The Role of Swarm Intelligence for Distributed Lethality’s C2 By Majorie Greene
Naval Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center: The Human Element of Distributed Lethality By VADM. Thomas Rowden

Be sure to browse other compendiums in the publications tab, and feel free send compendium ideas to

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CIMSEC Releases First 2016 Compendium

CIMSEC Compendiums are back!
CIMSEC is reintroducing PDF Compendiums to bolster its digital library. These compilations bring together the best articles CIMSEC has to offer on specific issue areas, all in an easy-to-read format. Our first release this year is Distributed Lethality, our topic week from July 2015. It can be found under the “Publications” tab. 
In the future, CIMSEC will release compendiums for other topic weeks and issues. If you have compendium suggestions, please email


The CIMSEC Publications Team

Matthew Merighi & John Stryker

Matthew Merighi is a Master of Arts candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and CIMSEC’s Director of Publications. John Stryker is a International Relations and Hispanic Studies undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary, and is a CIMSEC Intern.

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Chinese Thinking on Nuclear Weapons

This article was originally posted by Arms Control Today. It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Li Bin

Chinese nuclear experts began to join international nuclear dialogues in the late 1970s when China launched its policy of reform and openness. Their communications with U.S. nuclear experts are sometimes difficult and inefficient, in part because of differences in the ways that Americans and Chinese think about nuclear weapons.

One aspect of this divergence is terminology. Some international efforts have been undertaken to develop a common language among nuclear experts from different countries by compiling multi-language nuclear glossaries.1 These glossaries are a useful first step to smoothen international communication on nuclear issues, but they are not enough to eliminate misunderstandings caused by divergent beliefs and analytical paradigms.

This article summarizes the findings of a project by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Chinese nuclear thinking.2 The project aims to promote an effective and efficient dialogue between Chinese and U.S. nuclear experts by developing each side’s understandings of the other side’s thinking on nuclear weapons.


Several important security concepts have very different meanings in China and the United States. The differences are rooted in philosophical, historical, and cultural contexts and cannot be clarified simply by translating one side’s words into the language of other.

The word “security” itself is difficult to translate in Chinese. In English, security generally is about avoiding damage caused by intended human attacks while “safety” is about avoiding damage caused by accidents or natural disasters. In Chinese, the word “anquan” refers to the avoidance of damage from any cause and thus encompasses the meanings of “security” and “safety” in English.

The assumption in the English-speaking world is that security and safety issues are distinguishable. In China the assumption is that security and safety issues are sometimes tangled with each other and should be addressed in an integrated way. This Chinese thinking is based on a holistic philosophy and is now called the “comprehensive security concept” or “comprehensive security theory.”

At its first meeting, in April 2014, the Chinese Council of State Security, which is analogous to the U.S. National Security Council, announced 11 important security issues that it would address, most of which are nonmilitary issues.4 According to China’s comprehensive security theory, military and nonmilitary security issues are at the same level of importance and should be managed synergistically.

In the trade-off between the military power and the safety of nuclear weapons, the comprehensive security theory allows China to optimize its nuclear weapon systems in a more comprehensive framework. This can explain why China chooses to keep its nuclear weapons at a low level of alert. A higher level might strengthen the deterrent power of Chinese nuclear forces, but it also increases the risk of accidental launch and other safety problems. A “purely military viewpoint” that optimizes a weapons system only with regard to its military effects has long been criticized as unwise by the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army.

China also has a very different understanding of the concept of nuclear deterrence.5 For a long time, Chinese and U.S. nuclear experts have had communication problems in their exchanges about the concept. The Americans generally believe that nuclear deterrence is a defensive posture while the Chinese criticize the offensive nature of nuclear deterrence.

According to the U.S. understanding, both deterrence and compellence are considered coercion. Nuclear deterrence is to force an adversary to give up an action by threatening to use nuclear weapons while nuclear compellence is to force the adversary to take an action.6 The belief of the U.S. strategic community is that nuclear deterrence and compellence are distinguishable. If a coercive action is intended to change the status quo, it is compellence; otherwise, it is deterrence. The definition works well when it describes a coercive behavior in an isolated, large international conflict. For example, in this school of thought, if a country relies on the existence of its nuclear weapons to prevent a nuclear attack from its rival, it is an example of nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, if a country uses the influence of its nuclear weapons to occupy a large piece of its rival’s territory, that is nuclear coercion.

Many international conflicts, however, are small, and many large conflicts begin as small ones. In many small conflicts, it is very difficult to determine which country changed the status quo first. If a country wants to exploit its nuclear weapons in a small conflict or in an escalation of a small conflict into a larger one, it would be very difficult to distinguish compellence from deterrence. A country could launch a conventional attack against its adversary and use its possession of nuclear weapons to dissuade a conventional counterattack. In this case, nuclear weapons seem to play a deterrent role if one looks at only the second step in conflict. Yet, one could argue that nuclear weapons play a compellent role in the context of the whole process. The Chinese believe that nuclear deterrence and compellence are not distinguishable if the influence of nuclear weapons is applied to small conflicts or the escalation of such conflicts.

The Chinese translation of “deterrence” is “weishe,” but “weishe” actually means “coercion” in Chinese. This is not a translation error. It comes from the Chinese philosophy of holism. The Chinese worry about the compellent effects that are naturally associated with some policies that are labeled as “nuclear deterrence.” A nuclear policy reserving the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to conventional conflicts could encourage and support conventional aggression aiming to change the status quo. Such a policy actually represents nuclear compellence rather than deterrence. If nuclear weapons were used only in retaliation for nuclear attacks, the compellent roles of these weapons would be significantly reduced. This is why the Chinese government criticizes “nuclear deterrence based on first use of nuclear weapons.”

An arms race could be driven by concerns about a weakening of national security or influence in one side or in both sides of a pair of adversaries. If each of two rivals wants more nuclear weapons to better protect itself against attacks from the other side, this is an arms race due to the security dilemma. If each side wants more nuclear weapons to support its bid for leadership in the world, this is an arms race for hegemony. When Americans talk about an arms race, it is usually about the security dilemma; when the Chinese talk about an arms race, it is always about global hegemony. In Chinese eyes, the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War was driven mainly by the two countries’ ambitions for global hegemony.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama participate in an arrival ceremony for Xi at the White House on September 25. (Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama participate in an arrival ceremony for Xi at the White House on September 25. (Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

When China explains its self-constraint with regard to the growth of its nuclear weapons stockpile, it always pledges that it will not engage in an arms race with other countries. By that, China means that it will not seek to amass a large nuclear arsenal for the purpose of global hegemony.

Yet, if China sees the development of new strategic capabilities in other countries undermining its nuclear retaliatory capability, it certainly will consider the option of deploying more nuclear weapons. For example, one option for China to respond to growing U.S. missile defense capabilities is to develop more offensive missiles. If such a quantitative missile competition took place between China and the United States, it would be an arms race due to a security dilemma. The Chinese commitment rules out a strategy of nuclear growth for global hegemony, but it does not exclude a strategy of nuclear growth to respond to a security dilemma.

The two types of arms races mentioned above are different in their natures. An arms race for global hegemony always includes quantitative competitions. A country that has the goal of global hegemony cannot accept a larger strategic nuclear arsenal in any other country. In contrast, an arms race due to the security dilemma does not have to include quantitative competition. A small and survivable nuclear force is enough for the purpose of security.

This is why China feels comfortable with the small size of its nuclear arsenal. Its responses to new strategic capabilities in other countries do not have to involve an increase in the size of the arsenal if available countermeasures are smart and cheap. Chinese nuclear experts worry about new strategic capabilities in the United States, including missile defense and the ability to deliver precision conventional strikes, but the choices of countermeasures are still open. One option for China is a moderate increase in the number of its offensive missiles to compensate for the loss of its nuclear retaliatory capability, but Beijing has pledged not to pursue quantitative nuclear parity with United States for the purpose of hegemony.


In the United States, security analysis follows a basic paradigm, which is to identify and assess the threat to U.S. national security. A national security threat is usually an outside enemy that could hurt the United States; the threat is measured by the capability and intention of the enemy. If an enemy has a strong capability and an intention to hurt United States, it is regarded as a significant threat. Advocates of a change in security policy usually need to establish that an outside enemy has the capability and intention to hurt the United States.

The security paradigm measuring the capability and intention of an enemy is straightforward and transparent, so it is popular in the United States and is widely accepted by scholars in other countries, including some Chinese scholars and students. The paradigm is believed to be the only basis for security analysis. Very few people notice that there is a different indigenous Chinese security paradigm.8

The indigenous Chinese security paradigm emphasizes national security challenges instead of national security threats. A national security challenge is a dangerous situation in which China is vulnerable. Because of the influences of the U.S. security paradigm, Chinese security documents always use the phrase “national security challenges and threats.” In national defense “white papers” issued by the Chinese government in recent years, almost all cases of “national security challenges and threats” are situations rather than enemies. For example, one security challenge identified by a 2008 paper is the situation of technical lagging, in which “China is faced with the superiority of the developed countries” in economic, science and technology, and military affairs.

In the U.S. security paradigm, national security threats are usually outside the United States. In the Chinese security paradigm, the origins and effects of national security challenges could be inside China. For example, the situation of technical lagging may be caused by quick development of a particular technology in foreign countries and slow progress in China. In the U.S. security paradigm, security threats are mostly military threats while in the Chinese security paradigm, security challenges include military and nonmilitary factors.

Although some Chinese scholars and students have begun to use the U.S. security paradigm in academic research, the Chinese paradigm still dominates security policy research. Some Chinese nuclear policies and views cannot be explained by the U.S. security paradigm. For example, Chinese security experts expressed their concerns over the U.S. project on an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead during the George W. Bush administration. The small project would have brought very little new capability to the United States, and its declared purpose was to attack deeply buried targets in proliferator countries. Under the U.S. security paradigm, the Chinese should not have been worried about the project.

The Chinese security paradigm can well explain Beijing’s concern. A robust nuclear taboo against nuclear weapons use is favorable to China’s no-first-use policy and China’s security. Any development of this kind of tactical nuclear weapon would weaken the nuclear taboo and therefore increase the risk of nuclear weapons use.

As mentioned above, technical lagging is a dangerous situation and is regarded by the Chinese as a national security challenge. Many Chinese strategic and nuclear projects aim merely to master new defense technologies but not necessarily deploy them. A typical example is the Chinese effort on the neutron bomb. The purpose of the effort was to understand the technology. China decided not to deploy the neutron bomb because it is contrary to China’s no-first-use policy.

Another example is China’s response to U.S. national missile defense activities. The Chinese have two concerns in this area. The first concern is that the U.S. missile defenses may weaken China’s nuclear retaliatory capability. Because the concern can be well explained by the Chinese and U.S. security paradigms, it is easy for Chinese and U.S. security experts to have bilateral discussions on it. The second Chinese concern is that U.S. missile defense development may lead to great scientific and technical breakthroughs in the United States and that it would enlarge the technical gap between the United States and China. According to the Chinese security paradigm, possible technical lagging in China would be a security challenge and should be avoided. The 863 Program, launched in China in 1986, was to address the concern. Unfortunately, the second concern cannot be explained by the U.S. security paradigm and has been ignored by all U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogues.

In a broader area of national policy-making, the Chinese and U.S. ways of calculating national interests also are different. In the United States, it is very unusual to suggest that security interests should be sacrificed for economic interests. In China, economic and security interests are at the same level in the calculation of national interests, although some analyses may value one or the other highly. In Chinese debates on issues related to security and the economy, it is normal that security arguments yield to economic arguments. The economy-centered calculation on one hand encourages Chinese decision-makers to constrain China’s nuclear weapons development and, on the other hand, makes China cautious about nonproliferation sanctions, as illustrated by its attitude toward export controls in the 1980s and in the first half of the 1990s.


General Fang Fenghui (left), chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, introduces General Martin Dempsey (center), chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Chinese military officials in Beijing on April 20, 2013. (Photo credit: D. Myles Cullen/Defense Department)
General Fang Fenghui (left), chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, introduces General Martin Dempsey (center), chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Chinese military officials in Beijing on April 20, 2013. (Photo credit: D. Myles Cullen/Defense Department)

The Chinese have some approaches in nuclear policy that are different from those of the United States. The most noticeable approach is to keep the roles of nuclear and conventional weapons separate. The Chinese do not believe that nuclear weapons are usable and can help China in conventional wars. China always wants to avoid the influence of nuclear weapons on conventional weapons issues. It has a bilateral no-first-use agreement with Russia and never tries to use the influence of its nuclear weapons in its relations with India. The Chinese feel it is unreasonable to claim that Beijing would become more aggressive at the conventional level if its nuclear retaliatory capability became more credible. The approach of keeping the roles of nuclear and conventional weapons separate also allows China to maintain a small nuclear arsenal because it does not need a large nuclear arsenal for damage limitation in a first nuclear strike or reassuring allies as the United States does.

Many Chinese use the term “strategic stability” in a general way. They understand the term to refer to political trust and respect between countries. This is why the terms “strategic stability” and “strategic reassurance” are always associated with each other in U.S.-Chinese nuclear dialogues. In recent years, some Chinese experts, especially technical experts, have begun to use the Western definition of the term. Now the discussions between Chinese and U.S. security experts on the issue of strategic stability are sometimes on two different tracks. One track emphasizes the big picture of overall U.S.-Chinese relations while the other track pays attention to strategic force structures and related details. Some efforts are needed to make sure that the two tracks are not separated too widely.

The Chinese have an indigenous idea of strategic stability although they might not use that term. In China, there is a widespread belief that technical lagging would invite attacks. The belief accurately expresses the Chinese calculation in this area: deployed and non-deployed technologies are important in maintaining strategic stability. In the U.S. calculation of strategic stability, only technologies that a country is deploying or planning to deploy are considered. The logic is that only deployed systems ready to be launched contribute to the cost-benefit calculations for launching an attack in a crisis. The Chinese idea is that other countries would consider it a window of opportunity to attack their country if it does not have some important military technologies.

This is based on the painful experience that China first had when it was invaded by Western powers in 1839 during the First Opium War. If China has state-of-the-art military technologies available, it can move them into deployment when necessary. Chinese security experts always worry that U.S. military projects will lead to great scientific and technical breakthroughs in the United States, and U.S. security experts always worry that Chinese military projects will become deployed systems. These worries may cause overreactions by each country. Future U.S.-Chinese dialogues could consider including discussions on the Chinese indigenous approach to the calculation of strategic stability so that each country can better understand the intentions of the other.

China has had its preferred approach in nuclear disarmament since it acquired nuclear weapons. The approach includes two elements: The ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament is the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world, and the best way to reduce the role of nuclear weapons is by constraining the use of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear-weapon states have had more in common with regard to the first element since President Barack Obama’s proposal for moving to a nuclear-weapon-free world, but they still differ on the route of nuclear disarmament. In recent years, China has been expending less of its diplomatic capital to press positions with which the other nuclear-weapon states do not agree and generally has become more realistic and cooperative on nuclear disarmament issues. For example, it took the lead in compiling the nuclear glossary and has joined discussions on the verification of deep nuclear reductions by the nuclear-weapon states.

Some aspects of Chinese nuclear policy have undergone significant changes in recent years. The most obvious changes are in transparency and nonproliferation.

In the area of nuclear transparency, the traditional Chinese views are that transparency with regard to intention is more important than transparency with regard to capability and that China’s small nuclear force needs to be protected by a higher level of secrecy. In recent years, China has begun to exhibit more nuclear transparency as Chinese society has become more and more open. Some nuclear information is presented in official documents or at public events, such as parades in which military systems are displayed. Some information is leaked to social media, a practice that the government now tolerates more than it has in the past. A system for regular publication of nuclear information has yet to be built in China.

China’s views on and approaches to nuclear nonproliferation also have undergone major changes in recent years. Before the reform in China, the Chinese felt embarrassed to criticize nuclear weapon programs in proliferator countries such as India because they saw that it was discriminatory to criticize other countries when China had a nuclear weapons program. After China launched the policy of reform in 1978, the Chinese viewed national economic interests as a whole as more important than national security interests. That is a main reason why China was very reluctant to join international sanctions and export control efforts against proliferation. Over the past two decades, the Chinese have come to take a more balanced view on economic and security interests, and China has become more active in nuclear nonproliferation. China now considers nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to be serious challenges to its national security and is willing to invest in the efforts against these challenges.

The Chinese have their special understandings on some important nuclear terms and have a special paradigm in analyzing nuclear issues. In international dialogues on nuclear arms control, it is necessary to explain the logic and background of the Chinese nuclear thinking. Otherwise, communication among international nuclear experts would be difficult.

International society should pay attention to the special Chinese understandings on nuclear weapons. Experts from other countries should make greater efforts to explore Chinese security paradigms, nuclear terminology, and approaches to nuclear policy. Future international nuclear dialogues involving Chinese experts could include special sessions to address the differences between Chinese and U.S. nuclear thinking. These efforts could help clear suspicions between Chinese and U.S. nuclear experts in the strategic nuclear arena and thus avoid overreactions by both countries.

Li Bin is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. 


1.  For international efforts by governmental organizations on glossaries, see P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, “P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms,” China Atomic Energy Press, 2015. For international efforts by nongovernmental organizations, see Committee on the U.S.-Chinese Glossary of Nuclear Security Terms, English-Chinese, Chinese-English, Nuclear Security Glossary (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2008).

2.  The products of the project will be a book in Chinese and a book in English.  

3.  Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” April 16, 2013,

4.  Xinhua, “Xi Jinping: Adhere to the Comprehensive National Security Theory and Go Toward the Direction of National Security With Chinese Characteristics,” April 15, 2014, (in Chinese).

5.  For more on this issue, see Li Bin, “The Difference in the Chinese and American Understandings About ‘Nuclear Deterrence,’” World Economics and Politics, No. 2 (2014), pp. 1-18 (in Chinese with English abstract).

6.  Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 70-71.

7.  Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China: Arms Control and Disarmament,” November 1995,

8.  For more details on Chinese security paradigms, see Li Bin, “China and Global Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament,” in The War That Must Never Be Fought: Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence, ed. George P. Shultz and James E. Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2015).

9.  Information Office of the State Council of
China, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009,

10.  Hu Siyuan, “Nuclear Shadow Moving Around: U.S. Research on Nuclear Penetration Warhead,” March 25, 2004, (in Chinese).

11.  Office of Project 863, “Introduction to Project 863,” n.d., (in Chinese).

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