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The Concept of ‘Reach’ in Grasping China’s Active Defense Strategy: Part I

This publication originally featured on Bharat Shakti and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.

The article will be presented in two parts. In this part, the author explores China’s dependence on crude oil that traverses across the oceans to feed the country’s growth. These circumstances have prompted China to develop its naval forces, since its greater security concerns are in the oceans. The author initiates his discourse on Chinese strategy by detailing the foremost core imperatives that drive the Communist Party of China and its stated core national interests.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Ret.)

Much thought needs to be given to possible politico-military circumstances under which the Government of India might realize that a Sino-Indian military build-up, stand-off or confrontation is no longer a mere skirmish between their respective armies but a clash in which the Republic of India in its entirety becomes engaged in armed conflict against the People’s Republic of China. Within the context of these circumstances—themselves a matter of both conjecture and debate—this article seeks to initiate an analysis of contemporary Chinese military strategy, using the concept of “reach.”

In common with many such analyses, China’s White Paper of May 2015 forms the basis of our understanding of China’s Military Strategy, i.e. the plans by which the country’s military seeks to achieve national objectives at the strategic level.

Image Courtesy: Reuters
Chinese military parade. Image Courtesy: Reuters

The core imperatives that drive the Communist Party of China’s relationship to the State and the State’s relationship with the world at large include: 1) regime survival 2) “saving face” 3) domestic stability and 4) territorial integrity.

These resonate well with the more formally-stated six core national interests of China: 1) state sovereignty 2) national security 3) territorial integrity 4) national reunification 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability and 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

The commonly used term core interest, as used by the Chinese leadership, does not have direct correspondence with the same term used by India or, for that matter, by almost all other nation-states. The People’s Republic of China uses the term “to signal a more vigorous attempt to lay down a marker, or a warning, regarding the need for the United States and other countries to respect (indeed, accept with little if any negotiation) China’s position on certain issues”—in other words, “issues it considers important enough to go to war over.”

Along with the exponential growth of China’s “outward-leaning” economy in recent decades the country has experienced an equally meteoric increase in the geopolitical clout that it wields. Geopolitics is largely the sum of geoeconomics and geostrategy. Consequently, as China’s geoeconomic power has affected and dwarfed other regional and State economies, its asserted geostrategy has incrementally incorporated an number of geographic regions as its “core interests.” Examples include Xinjiang, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, and very nearly the whole of the South China Sea.

Image Courtesy: Defence Alert
Image Courtesy: Defence Alert.

China’s geoeconomy has not only generated a more aggressive geostrategy but has also marked an inclination for other nation-states to acquiesce to China’s latest “core interest.” Within the Chinese state-apparatus, this acquiescence appears to have been understood as tacit acknowledgement of China’s intrinsic and inherent superiority to all other geopolitical entities and peoples. This concept of self is driven by the millennia-old Chinese belief that China is the “Middle Kingdom,” at the very center of global civilization, surrounded by barbarian vassals. It is a view that largely defines China’s sense of national identity. Thus, amongst the Chinese power-elites within the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Central Military Commission (CMC), the lack of any “pushback” from other global and regional powers to China’s assertions has led to a sense of disdain bordering on hubris.

Image Courtesy: NDTV
Image Courtesy: NDTV

In analyzing China’s military strategy, it is essential to understand three central features of the People’s Republic. The first is the critical importance of continuity and supremacy of the CPC. The second is the Chinese economy. The third is the uniquely Chinese concept of “face.” All three are closely linked. If the economy should falter or fail, the continuity of the CPC (regime continuity), or at the very least its continued supremacy, will become uncertain. Likewise, the Chinese sense of identity is inextricably linked to this concept of face and a national loss of face is likely to be far less acceptable than a mere “temporary” loss of territory or military assets. This critical feature offers India several military-strategic options in dealing with China.

The 2015 White Paper clarifies that China characterizes outer space and cyberspace as the “new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.” It likewise declares China’s intent to focus upon building a reliable second-strike capability. However, the sharpest thrust has been reserved for the oceans, which is understandable given the prominence that the 2015 White Paper accords to the contemporary strategic concerns of the People’s Republic. These strategic concerns include America’s pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s recasting of its military and security policies, and the resistance being offered by Philippines and Vietnam to China’s 9-Dash Line and its assertive activities in the Spratly Islands.

The Chinese Armed Forces are charged with the preservation and protection of the country’s core interests, and this tasking determines China’s military strategy. As war evolves towards “informatization,” a key strategic task of Chinese armed forces is safeguarding China’s security interests in new domains such as Global Positioning Systems, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Cyber/Information Warfare. The latest White Paper has also reaffirmed the centrality of active defense as the guiding strategy for China’s military forces. Thus, offense at the tactical and operational levels is consistent with an overall defensive orientation at the strategic level. By this logic, cyber-attacks are integral elements of the Chinese military’s efforts to “resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests” in cyberspace. Indeed, in the cyber and maritime domains alike, Beijing consistently rationalizes assertive activities as justified responses to prior provocations.

Despite the inevitable hype that has accompanied analyses of the 2015 White Paper, this is a Chinese strategic concept that predates the People’s Republic itself. Its first articulation within China may be attributed to Mao Zedong, the CPC’s founding chairman, who codified it in a much studied 1936 essay on the “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War,” which outlined “the strategy that the Red Army used in order to overcome stronger Nationalist and Japanese opponents—right from the Party’s inception in 1921 until its greatest triumph in 1949.”

Image Courtesy: AFP
Image Courtesy: AFP

“Active defense may be accurately described as a strategically defensive posture that a big, resource rich but (militarily) weak combatant assumes to weary and turn the tables on a stronger antagonist. Such a combatant needs time to tap its resources—natural riches, manpower, martial ingenuity—so it protracts the war. It makes itself strong over time, raising powerful armed forces, while constantly harrowing the enemy. It chips away at enemy strength where and when it can. Ultimately the weaker becomes the stronger contender, seizes the offensive, and wins. It outlasts the foe rather than hazarding a battle early on—a battle where it could lose everything in an afternoon.”

Obviously, a nation needs physical and strategic maneuvering space to work this strategy. Originally, this strategy was confined solely to the geospatial imperatives of the land war fought by the Red Army, wherein Mao’s peasant troops had the luxury of withdrawing into the remote interior of China. This move forced the enemy forces to choose between breaking contact and ceding the initiative or giving chase and overextending themselves. In the latter case, Red Army units, operating closer to their own logistics base could raid and harry the overstretched enemy, cut supply routes, and fall upon and annihilate isolated units. It was a strategy that the Russians, too, had used a century earlier when, in 1812, they seduced Napoleon deep into the Russian interior, leading to military disaster for France.

The term active defense remains contemporary in militaries other than the People’s Republic of China. The US Department of Defense, for instance, also uses the term, albeit predominantly (if not solely) with distinctly tactical connotations and defines it as “the employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy.” The Chinese, however, apply this as a general strategic principle applicable across all levels, from the tactical to the strategic. At the level of geostrategy, the required “maneuver space” shifts from the hinterland to the largely maritime expanse of the Indo-Pacific.

Here, the concept of strategic maneuver has intimate linkages with geoeconomics, much of which, as a result of the geographic element within that term, is maritime in nature. As the renowned Chinese Professor Lexiong Ni put it, “When a nation embarks upon a process of shifting from an ‘inward-leaning economy’ to an ‘outward-leaning economy,’ the arena of national security concerns begins to move to the oceans. This is a phenomenon in history that occurs so frequently that it has almost become a rule rather than an exception.”

Perhaps a good way to understand the application of this strategy at the grand-theater level is to simply abandon the lexicon of the standard Western approach to active defense, which in Indian analyses is all too frequently simply “copied-and-pasted,” and instead examine this stated strategy through a different prism, one that I call “reach.” We need to consider reach as an overarching ability with internal (e.g., political/societal) as well as external (geopolitical) facets and with spatial as well as temporal dimensions.

Internal reach may be considered as the ability to tap into the intrinsic sources of China’s strength—its people (including its global diaspora) and their conditioned sense of identity, their value system with the centrality that it gives to the concept of “face,” their industriousness, their innovativeness, their ability to reverse-engineer everything from contemporary and evolving concepts to cutting-edge and state-of-the-art military-hardware, their fierce determination to regain “face” that was lost in the Century of Humiliation and to not lose it ever again, etc. This is, in effect, the contemporary re-creation of the Chinese people as a roughly homogeneous mass—the peasant army in a modern, sophisticated avatar—no longer peasants but retaining the quality of “mass” all the same.

At the geoeconomic level, economic reach is the ability of China to build its own economy and sustain its economic growth by gaining and maintaining access to geographically diverse external sources of economic wealth (whether by way of access to raw materials from foreign lands or through market expansion of Chinese products in foreign lands). China’s geostrategy translates economic reach into geographical reality over a time frame that is predetermined by the state.

In other words, at the geostrategic level, strategic reach is the ability to shape the probable battlespace by enabling access and logistic support to Chinese commercial and State entities (including military entities) throughout China’s areas of geopolitical interest, so as to enable and/or facilitate economic reach while avoiding placing all geoeconomic eggs in a single basket.

In some cases, this geoeconomic reach can be realized within a purely land-centric (continental) frame of geographic access. For instance, Mongolia, which has substantial reserves of high quality coking coal, is an important focus of China’s overland strategic reach. Likewise, Russian overland exports of oil, gas and
minerals (especially iron ore) increasingly feed the voracious economic appetite of China and have catapulted China into
Russia’s largest trade partner, ahead of Germany. In the case of Vietnam, too, where the principal exports to China are oil and coal, a significant amount of the trade is overland, since the 1,300 km border is shared between the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi and eight provinces of Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam have invested billions in highway and railway infrastructure to facilitate their bilateral overland trade. China’s significant imports of refined copper and copper ore from Laos also move predominantly along overland trade routes.

myanmar-kazakhstan-oil-gas-pipelineHowever, to meet the ever-growing demand for mineral resources and petroleum-based energy that is required to sustain China’s economic growth, the bulk of China’s imports of these resources are being drawn from increasingly distant areas that are either accessible only by sea or where seaborne transit offers the most cost-effective movement in terms of volume, time, and space. In fact, the maritime component of her geostrategy is so large that China is increasingly forced to venture into the uncertainties of becoming very nearly a pure maritime power. In China today, there is widespread recognition that a competent and well-balanced blue-water navy is the only military instrument that can obtain and sustain a favorable geopolitical situation in all the dynamic shifts that characterize international relations between China and the nation states upon which her geoeconomy depends. Indeed, the economy is simultaneously China’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability, and therefore, it is the centerpiece of the country’s policy and strategy. This is, of course, true of India as well.

ESPOAn ever-increasing demand for energy fuels China and India’s economic growth. Although the share of coal is still the largest in the energy-basket of both countries, oil consumption is growing so rapidly that it is driving the foreign policy and security perspectives of both China and India.  In 1985, China was East Asia’s largest exporter of oil. In 1993, China became a net importer, and in 2015, she became the largest importer of crude oil on the planet. By April 2015, China was importing a staggering 7.4 million barrels per day (bbd) and by 2020, China will be importing an estimated 9.2 million bbd of crude-oil.

myanmar-china-oil-gas-pipeline-300x225For all the marvelous engineering, the three main crude oil pipelines into China (the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline (ESPO), the Kazakhstan-China oil Pipeline and the Myanmar-China oil pipeline), taken in aggregate, cater for a mere 15% of China’s crude oil imports. Almost all of the enormous quantity of crude oil that China imports either lies within or must travel across the Indian Ocean and must transit one or more of the chokepoints that connect the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. These are: the Malacca Strait, the Sunda Strait, the Lombok strait, and the Ombai-Wetar strait. Of these, the Malacca Strait and the Lombok Strait of are particular importance to China and constitute what Chinese leaders term the “Malacca Dilemma.”

It is prudent to remember that the terms “energy security” and “security-of-energy” are not mere semantic variations. Energy security is the degree to which the available or assured and affordable energy exceeds the demand. The security-of-energy, on the other hand, is the physical security of the energy as it flows across or under the sea or over the land. Consequently, China, as a country, concerns itself with energy security, while the Chinese Navy concerns itself with the security-of-energy.

Conscious of all this, China is executing a geostrategy that will enable her to assure her geoeconomic needs. As in the famous Chinese game of Go, the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space.

The second part of this article will explore China’s geostrategic execution further.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

From Frontier to Frontline: Tanmen Maritime Militia’s Leading Role Pt. 2

Tanmen Militia’s Leading Role in the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY)-981 Oil Rig Standoff, Spratly Features Construction, and Beyond

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

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 18th National 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 vessel Qiongdongfang 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.

News reports put the number of Chinese vessels present in the area around HYSY-981 at twice that of Vietnam’s. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that by early June there were as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels in the area. While the number of these vessels present fluctuated over the course of the confrontation, Hainan’s key maritime militia units accounted for many of the Chinese fishing vessels operating on the front lines. Tanmen Maritime Militia Company Deputy Commander Wang Shumao’s web profile on the Qionghai City government website chronicles his force’s mobilization to protect the cordoned zone surrounding HYSY-981 in May 2014. Wang led ten of the company’s militia vessels and 200 militiamen to the platform’s location south of Triton Island to block Vietnamese attempts to disrupt the platform’s operations. Sanya’s maritime militia contributed 29 fishing vessels to the oil rig’s defense. This number, combined with the 10 sent by the Tanmen militia, correlates closely with Vietnamese estimates of the number of Chinese fishing vessels present. While detailed discussion of the fact is beyond this article’s scope, it is clear that maritime militia units from other areas also participated in this incident. The aforementioned Qiongdongfang 11209, for instance, hails from Dongfang City, located on Hainan Province’s western coast between Sanya and Danzhou cities. Dongfang City established its first maritime militia unit on 8 May 2013, with a smaller contingent of 64 fishermen. The sheer scale of the “rights protection” action to defend the cordon around HYSY-981 was surely unprecedented for new units and the more experienced Tanmen maritime militia alike.

In his interviews with the Tanmen fishermen, Zhang Hongzhou of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies found that although many of the fishing vessels defending the rig were from Tanmen, many fishermen actually did not respond to the Chinese government’s request to mobilize, citing a lack of incentive to do so. To be sure, if a more robust incentive structure were instituted, perhaps a greater number of Chinese fishing vessels would have turned out to completely envelope the oil rig. However, our research indicates that the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company was not simply requested to go, but was ordered to do so—and indeed met its obligations. Local military and government officials likely recognize the difference in reliability between disciplined militia forces and other fishermen and will continue to act accordingly in the future. Furthermore, many Chinese reports on the maritime militia indicate that entry into the militia requires members to submit “National Defense Obligation Registration Certificates” (民兵国防义务登记证) that are reviewed annually. Abandoning one’s duties as a member of the Maritime Militia could result in punishments or in some cases criminal prosecution, according to China’s “Military Service Law,” which specifies rules governing the service of active duty military, People’s Armed Police, and the reserves. Maritime Militia-specific punishments might include fines, withheld fuel subsidies, suspension of trips, or revocation of fishing licenses as described in an article written by the Zhoushan Garrison Commander in Zhejiang Province in 2014. Although it remains unclear to what extent such requirements are actually enforced, militia may respond better to encouragement from local leaders in the form of incentives, whereas overly zealous punishments could dampen the willingness to serve among this amalgamation of irregular volunteers.

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Tanmen maritime militia report for duty in uniform, likely a training exercise. Source: National Defense (July 2013).

Certainly, economic incentives matter in multiple ways. Given overall trends, in which a rising tide of economic growth and government investment may be channeled to raise all boats, officials in key localities of Hainan Province are able to foster maritime militia construction while furthering their other goals. Tanmen Township, for its part, has leveraged its contributions to China’s pursuit of “maritime rights and interests” to expand the scope of its infrastructure and economy. This includes constructing the new Tanmen Bridge to the prosperous Bo’ao Township and developing the clam and turtle industries and tourism. The aim is to transcend exclusive reliance on Tanmen’s fishing industry, while diversifying its services. Still the very picture of a small, sleepy fishing village on the outside, Tanmen has slowly expanded its infrastructure for the fishing industry. Approved by the provincial government, the Tanmen Harbor expansion project broke ground in late August 2006, turning Tanmen fishing harbor into a “core fishing port.” The project entailed dredging out the harbor, greatly expanding the dock space, and expanding shore-side facilities to support the fishing fleets. Through heavy central and local government investment, Tanmen Harbor now reportedly has capacity for one thousand 100-ton fishing vessels. A February 2015 government report put Tanmen’s marine fishing fleet at 786 vessels, with 174 large and medium distant-water vessels and 612 small near-seas vessels. Enjoying great political and financial support, Tanmen harbor is well positioned to support the region’s fishing industry as well as its own burgeoning fishing communities.

Current Force Structure

As with so much else in China, the Party’s leadership role—considered critical to control of the militia and the fishing community more broadly—is central to the Tanmen Militia’s employment in the HYSY-981 incident and to its broader development. To facilitate Party oversight of the Tanmen Militia, a “South China Sea Fisheries Party Branch” was created in 2006 to organize the Party members among the Tanmen fishermen and the vessel owners. The position of Party Chief in this organization is held concurrently by a Tanmen Township Party Committee member. This branch organizes rescue and self-defense training events for the fishermen and implements a system of Party control aboard each fishing vessel. This entails a requirement that there be at least one party member per vessel and the formation of a temporary “Party Small Group” (PSG, 党小组) out of 5-7 vessels that go to sea. These are formed to manage both the fishermen and the militia, ensuring a Party presence for supervising fishermen’s behavior during regular trips out to sea. Each PSG will have a single experienced Party member or vessel captain in command. During Luo Baoming’s 2012 visit to Tanmen Township to inspect the fishing community, he publicly made a radio call at the fisheries management station to one such PSG operating at Johnson South Reef. On the receiving end, PSG leader Shi Kexiong thanked the Central Party enthusiastically for supporting his group’s work. The conversation was a signal to the Tanmen fishermen of the increasing importance of their efforts to advance China’s maritime rights and interests and of the necessity of a Party presence aboard their vessels, even as far away as the Spratlys.

In keeping with China’s parallel Party-State and military structure, Tanmen’s maritime militia members are also directly subject to the PLA chain of command. The principal civilian and military leaders of Tanmen Township, Qionghai City, and Hainan Province are all responsible for militia work within their respective jurisdictions. This dual-responsibility system is at the core of Chinese civil-military integration efforts and ensures ‘Party control of the gun’—in this case, the local military forces including the maritime militia. The Tanmen Maritime Militia is currently led by the Commander Zhang Jiantang (also head of Tanmen PAFD), and Political Instructor Pang Fei, the current Tanmen Township Party Chief. The Tanmen grassroots-level PAFD manages the maritime militia directly and reports back to the Qionghai City county-level PAFD, which is manned by active duty PLA personnel. These PAFDs are at the bottom-tier of the provincial military headquarters system that manages local forces.

The Qionghai City government website description of Tanmen’s involvement in the HYSY-981 incident suggests that on-site authority is delegated to the company’s deputy commander Wang Shumao, who reports back to his superiors in Tanmen. As we previously documented in our article on Sanya City’s maritime militia, the Guangzhou Military Region command mobilized the local forces of the Hainan Military District. It has become clear that a mobilization order also made its way down the chain to the Tanmen PAFD, which then gave its company orders to deploy and defend the HYSY-981 oil rig. While details of the Tanmen Maritime Militia’s specific involvement in that incident remain unclear, the overall process of its participation illuminates how China’s maritime militia is mobilized for maritime rights protection.

Chinese reporting on the Tanmen Maritime Militia varies in its descriptions of the company’s organizational structure. As reported in 2014, Tanmen Maritime Militia units are organized roughly as follows:

Militia Company – Approximately 128 personnel / 12 fishing vessels

Headquarters – 8 personnel

4 Platoons = 12 squads / 10 personnel each

A company of approximately 128 personnel aboard 12 fishing vessels makes up the bulk of the force, with 8 personnel at the maritime militia headquarters. While it is difficult to track the exact composition of any particular unit, Chinese sources help clarify that a single vessel is considered a “squad” and three vessels form a “platoon.” Three platoons composed of nine vessels in total would form a “company.” However, another report in 2013 put the number at 150 personnel and 21 vessels. This suggests a change in the total size of the force over time. The total number of vessels in the militia seems to have shrunk, likely because of the replacement of old wooden-hulled vessels with larger, more capable steel-hulled vessels.  

Through various Chinese reports, we have identified the following eleven trawlers as Tanmen Maritime Militia vessels. Their captains typically have specific leadership roles as cadres in the paramilitary organization:

On the basis of the organization outlined above, the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company is following a Maritime Militia Operational Model” that integrates several concepts. The fishing vessels serve as “carriers” or transports (载体), “sovereign islands and reefs” are the “battlefield,” and the home port is the “base.” The company is assigned important roles and missions: displaying a sovereign presence, controlling the marine resources among the islands and reefs, and assisting the troops garrisoned in the South China Sea and assisting maritime agencies in conducting rights protection missions. Tanmen militiamen are also tasked with collecting information on foreign activities in China’s claimed waters and fulfilling other support functions for both the fishing industry and government agencies overall. 

Tanmen Militia Training

In 2013, the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company completed 32 days of conventional training and 18 days of high-intensity training. To date, experts from the Sanya Naval base have been invited to train the Tanmen maritime militia twice, focusing on reconnaissance and surveillance skills.

tanmen 3
Photo from the Hainan Provincial Military District’s Mobilization Office of Tanmen Maritime Militia members receiving instruction from PLAN officers in 2013. Deputy Commander Wang (on the right) mans an anti-aircraft machine gun during weapons training. Source: National Defense (July 2013).

Similar to that for other maritime militia, training will focus on cadres, captains (船老大), and unit leaders, all of whom will in turn provide leadership to individual militiamen on the boats. These personnel, including squad leaders Chen Zebo and Xu Detan (both present at the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff), constitute an important “backbone force” in the militia. More politically reliable and experienced than their militia crews, they can exercise leadership over them. This management role is particularly critical, as there may be significant fluctuation in crew composition because the industry relies on Chinese migrant workers who periodically enter and exit the fishing fleet. On 2 February 2013, two months before Xi’s visit, Tanmen Township held a collective training session for such “backbone cadres” in its maritime militia. The session recognized their contribution to protecting maritime rights and sovereignty in 2012 (particularly during the Scarborough Shoal incident) and stressed the role of each cadre as a model representing Tanmen Township, Qionghai City, and Hainan Province. Later that month, Qionghai City held a training event for the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company to plan the year’s training objectives and schedule. Qionghai City Deputy Mayor Fu Chuanfu called for strengthening maritime militia military training to prepare for manifold emergency situations and even high-tech local wars. These meetings, just months before Xi’s visit, were also likely to ensure that the maritime militia members were primed for the political wave about to arrive.

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Front gate of Tanmen government compound and PAFD.
Map depicting Tanmen fishing harbor and key institutions for the maritime militia.
Map depicting Tanmen fishing harbor and key institutions for the maritime militia.

Based inside the Tanmen government compound, the Tanmen Maritime Militia Headquarters is co-located with the People’s Armed Forces Department, which exercises daily command and management of the maritime militia in Tanmen.

Arms and Uniforms

Although Tanmen’s maritime militia do not appear to be regularly armed, they do receive live-fire arms training. In 2013 they held nine live-fire training sessions. Weapons for the Tanmen maritime militia are likely stored in and serviced by the Qionghai City Militia Armory, which is run by the Qionghai City PAFD according to regulations on militia weapons and equipment promulgated by the General Staff Department—now under the responsibility of the newly created National Defense Mobilization Department of the Central Military Commission. Staff responsible for 24-hour management and guarding of the armories are selected from “politically sound” demobilized veterans and they receive salaries and social benefits. Grassroots level PAFDs, like Tanmen, will also have secure weapons rooms, but will likely need to request distribution of the weapons from the Qionghai Armory, as militia weapons and equipment are supposed to be concentrated in the county-level militia armories. If mission requirements call for the Tanmen Militia to be armed, they would need to submit a request up the PLA chain of command for the distribution of weapons. While Tanmen’s maritime militia members are unlikely to be regularly armed at sea, China may, in time, allow its fishermen to defend themselves with light arms. The Hainan Provincial Military District commander major general Zhang Jian wrote in an October 2015 National Defense article that maritime militiamen would receive “defensive combat weaponry” (自卫作战武器) according to their mission.

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December 2013: Tanmen deputy Party Secretary Pang Fei holds a meeting with members of the maritime militia company before they go to sea. News reports state that Tanmen’s maritime militiamen undergo an “ideological mobilization” before heading out to fish. Uniforms are mostly a formality worn during training and meetings. They are not typically worn at sea. The personnel shown in this photo are likely the vessel captains concurrently serving as squad or platoon leaders. Note the blue uniform of the closest individual on the right. The Tanmen Maritime Militia appear to wear different types of uniforms as shown in this video news coverage of their training.
Tanmen Maritime Militia Company personnel wearing blue uniforms in 2014.
Tanmen Maritime Militia Company personnel wearing blue uniforms in 2014.

Tanmen’s “Island” Builders

The origins of the Tanmen Maritime Militia’s status as a uniformed force whose members often work with the PLAN dates to the government-led buildup of the past three decades. Many years prior to that, Tanmen Maritime Militia personnel and regular fishermen took it upon themselves to develop many of South China Sea islands and reefs for their own economic benefit, often landing and camping out on such features. They officially became involved in the state’s development of the Paracels and Spratlys in late 1988 when the then-Deputy Party Secretary of Tanmen accepted the mission after a visit with naval engineers at the PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet base in Zhanjiang. Upon returning to Tanmen they quickly began selecting the members of the maritime militia and vessels to undertake this effort. Platoon Leader Wang Shumao (today Deputy Company Commander) and several other militia captains were chosen to begin assisting PLA troops in the construction of Chinese-controlled features in the Spratlys, delivering stone, rebar, and concrete. During this period, Tanmen maritime militiamen reportedly made 580 trips to the Spratlys and delivered 2.65 million tons of materials to assist the navy in constructing docks on all seven of the Chinese-occupied Spratly features. They also helped deliver provisions to the troops stationed on those features, alleviating the supply concerns of those responsible for remaining in the harsh conditions of remote island and reef garrisons. Tanmen’s current company commander, Zhang Jiantang, explains that the naval vessels’ draughts were too deep to reach the shallow-water features, so they used Tanmen fishermen aboard fishing vessels and small motorboats to transport building materials to the construction sites. This demonstrates that, at least in the early years of PRC presence in the Spratlys, the Tanmen Militia was a critical enabler of China’s sustained occupation of its features.

Below is a brief timeline describing the construction work of Tanmen Maritime Militia forces on Spratly reefs. Identified by name where possible, some of the fishing vessel captains involved in this early construction are publicly recognized leaders of Tanmen’s militia today.

  • February 1989 – The first group tasked with the construction was composed of five fishing vessels and 120 fishermen. They worked for six months on Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Johnson South, Hughes, and Gaven reefs. This included vessels Qionghai 00206, 00265 (with Wang Shumao as captain), 00805, 0056, and 00441.
  • February 1990 – Qionghai 00206 and Qionghai 00265 (with Wang Shumao as captain), with 48 fishermen, spent six months performing construction work at Subi Reef. Qionghai 0480 and its captain/militia member “Old Qiu” (老邱) is also reported to have worked at Subi Reef for three months.
  • February 1992 – Qionghai 00226 (with Wang Shubiao as captain), Qionghai 00267 (with Wang Shumao as captain) and Qionghai 00269, with 72 fishermen, spent three months engaged in construction at Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Johnson South, Hughes, and Gaven reefs.
  • February 1995 – Qionghai 00265 (with Wang Shumao as captain), Qionghai 00226 (with Wang Shubiao as captain), Qionghai 00437, and Qionghai 00208, with 96 fishermen, spent six months doing construction work at Mischief Reef.

Deputy Commander Wang Shumao went on all the construction trips reported here and current Platoon Leader Wang Shubiao is reported to have gone on two of them. Despite brutal working conditions and likely using only manual labor, they were able to help construct bunker-style stilted structures and two helicopter pads, and even cut breaks in the reefs for vessels. The sweat shed by the Tanmen Maritime Militia in building these first-generation Chinese structures helped anchor a military presence on disputed features for decades, literally laying a foundation for the PRC’s recent construction of artificial islands on those very same sites.

Participation in the 1995 Mischief Reef Incident

The final construction trip reported above coincides with the Chinese takeover of Mischief Reef in January 1995, when the PRC stationed naval vessels at the reef and erected permanent structures. Chinese open sources confirm that it was the Tanmen Maritime Militia that assisted in transferring the construction materials from PLAN transport ships onto the construction site of the three-stilted structures. Their stated purpose as a “shelter” for Chinese fishermen did little to allay Philippine concerns over Chinese expansion in the Spratlys. As negotiations between Beijing and Manila failed to gain traction, Philippine naval forces set forth to destroy Chinese sovereignty markers on several features. On 25 March 1995, the Philippine navy arrested a group of Chinese fishermen operating south of Mischief Reef for poaching endangered species and planting territorial markers. The four boats detained were Tanmen Maritime Militia vessels led by platoon leader Wang Qiongfa, who helped keep the 62 jailed fishermen from accepting Philippine demands that they sign statements recognizing Manila’s sovereignty over the features. The benefits of a strong Party and militia presence became clear as Wang Qiongfa and his fellow militia unit leaders maintained their staunch verbal defense of China’s South China Sea sovereignty claims, even in a Philippine jail cell. The presence of another group of Tanmen maritime militia members near the site of the standoff indicates that additional units were dispatched to further assist Beijing’s effort to consolidate control over Mischief Reef.

Managing the Militia

While the Tanmen Militia of yesterday and today has contributed greatly to the furtherance of Chinese national objectives, to ensure its dedication to future achievements in the South China Sea’s increasingly roiled waters, further work is needed to control and incentivize its efforts. As they engage in maritime militia construction to meet provincial and national objectives, local officials must balance competing objectives. Three major areas of official effort in this regard are mitigating poaching, providing financial incentives, and monitoring and coordinating fleets.

Poaching, for instance, can reap greater returns in a high-risk environment, especially as traditional fishing yields decline and subsidies fail to compensate. Tanmen officials appear to be making efforts to increase the fishermen’s respect for the rule of law and safety. Because China would like to assert the validity of its domestic law over the sea areas it claims, it is important for the fishermen that regularly populate those waters to recognize China’s domestic law. All along China’s coast, local governments are therefore taking multiple approaches to reconcile these competing incentives. First, they are increasing investment in fishing fleets’ electronic communications equipment, using systems such as the Beidou satellite navigation system and its unique features—such as positioning, messaging, and distress reporting functions—to increase monitoring of them. Second, they are improving the fishing population’s education and training. Tanmen Township officials released notices and held conferences on safe fisheries production for the fishing vessel captains. Third, they are imposing punishments, such as fines or revoking of fishing licenses.

One example that embodies the competing priorities local officials must confront is a large land reclamation project nearby that has alarmed hundreds of Tanmen fishermen. The Provincial Ocean and Fisheries Bureau approved the project in 2010. The project is meant to boost tourism by building a five-star resort hotel, vacation condominiums, parks, and facilities for yachts. The fishermen are worried the increased tourism and related activities will harm their harbor’s environment and their livelihoods. Officials including the head of Qionghai City’s Ocean and Fisheries Department have dismissed the fishermen’s concerns, reaffirming that they do not own the land and therefore have no right to compensation. The company in charge of the reclamation work distributed “compensation” to each village committee in the form of 120,000 RMB (18,534.78 USD), essentially a bribe to preempt opposition from grassroots officials. Other construction work, such as the aforementioned recently-built bridge across Tanmen Harbor, also received some opposition from the local fishermen. While these projects align well with the national mandate to develop Hainan province into an international tourism destination, the rapid changes surrounding such a long-established fishing harbor may foster tensions with the local fishermen, in addition to mounting pressures they face from reduced catches and friction with foreign vessels in the South China Sea. 

Such local conditions directly influence the vitality of maritime militia organization. Government support, such as vessel construction and fuel subsidies, help raise the scale of the fishing community’s production, thereby increasing their ability to make profits on each fishing trip. It also helps alleviate any misgivings locals may have over development projects that will likely change the structure of the local economy, especially for a township as small as Tanmen. It also has the dual benefit of both improving their livelihoods and increasing their ability to support China’s maritime claims further out in the South China Sea. The strong political and economic support to this community will be essential if it is expected to continue the struggle for maritime rights and interests in places as far as the Spratlys. It will also help reduce the amount of illicit activities tempting the fishermen, thereby reducing moral erosion in what is supposed to be China’s leading model maritime militia unit.

In 2014 Tanmen implemented a “Fishing Vessel Upgrade and Modification Program,” whereby over 50 wooden-hulled fishing vessels were reconfigured into 300-to-500-ton steel-hulled vessels. Additionally, the Hainan Provincial Government and the Qionghai County Government subsidized construction of twenty-nine 500-ton displacement steel-hulled fishing vessels, most of which have been delivered. The subsidies amounted to more than one-third the cost of the vessels’ construction. They reportedly possess modern equipment and communications gear and provide greater sea keeping and operational ranges. Twelve of these 500-ton vessels are confirmed to have entered service in the Tanmen Maritime Militia, which coincides with the organizational structure outlined above. Tanmen Township is also currently building a new maritime militia detachment; its size and mission focus remain uncertain.

24 December 2015: Tanmen Maritime Militia’s newly-delivered 500-ton fishing vessels stand ready at Tanmen Harbor’s pier.
24 December 2015: Tanmen Maritime Militia’s newly-delivered 500-ton fishing vessels stand ready at Tanmen Harbor’s pier.

Poaching and its Mitigation

As might be expected among irregular frontiersmen, illicit enrichment through irresponsible fishing in troubled waters remains a perennial problem. Tanmen village’s fishermen are notorious for their illegal fishing activities, despite local officials’ admonitions and neighboring countries’ opposition. While poaching is not exclusive to Tanmen, its fishermen have been caught repeatedly harvesting endangered species of turtles and giant clams. The ever-present demand for products derived from this ‘aquatic ivory’ fuels the high prices Tanmen fishermen can charge. For example, giant clam processing and handicrafts represent an important industry in Tanmen. The Tanmen Township 2014-2030 Marine Economy Industrial Park Plan states that giant clam processing currently constitutes 70% of all the enterprises in operation. Apparently enjoying a plum position in keeping with her family’s disproportionate contribution to the local economy, government policies, and community norms that literally make patriotism pay, Chen Zebo’s wife staffs Tanmen’s clam handicraft shop while he is out to sea. Tourism, in turn, furthers demand for these products. One month after the Scarborough Shoal incident, Tanmen fishermen were busy bringing in large hauls of giant clams, this time under the protection of Chinese MLE escorts. 

Returning to the waters near Palawan Island, two Tanmen fishing vessels were caught poaching endangered turtles by the Philippines near Half Moon Shoal on 6 May 2014. One of the vessels, Qionghai 03168, escaped, while Qionghai 09063 was detained. After boarding Qionghai 09063, Philippine authorities immediately shut off the boat’s Beidou Satellite Navigation Transmitter, as indicated by the Tanmen Fisheries and Fishing Harbor Management Station Chief Wang Qizhen. After losing contact with the fishing boat’s Beidou terminal and receiving reports from the fleeing Qionghai 03168, Chinese Fisheries Law Enforcement and Coast Guard forces began searching the area for the lost boat. They sent orders via the Beidou system to fishing vessels Qionghai 03168 and Qionghai 05067 to return to the area of last contact to conduct a search. China Coast Guard vessel 3102 was also pulled away from its task of blockading Second Thomas Shoal to support the search.

17 May 2012: Heap of the endangered giant clams harvested by Tanmen fishing vessel Qionghai 05008.
17 May 2012: Heap of the endangered giant clams harvested by Tanmen fishing vessel Qionghai 05008.
16 September 2015: Over 150 fisheries and public security personnel make a show of authority, inspecting Tanmen boats and handicraft stores for evidence of endangered species harvesting. Reports state, improbably, that they found no evidence of illegal harvesting.
16 September 2015: Over 150 fisheries and public security personnel make a show of authority, inspecting Tanmen boats and handicraft stores for evidence of endangered species harvesting. Reports state, improbably, that they found no evidence of illegal harvesting.

The poaching is detrimental to the overall narrative Beijing promotes regarding the South China Sea. This narrative involves China’s effective “administrative control” (管控) over disputed waters. Domestic Chinese regulations and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which China is a party, both declare the harvest of  endangered species such as Tridacnidae (giant clams) to be illegal. Yet Tanmen fishermen blatantly ignore these prohibitions, damaging China’s image both in terms of environmental conservation and effective control over the activities that take place in its claimed waters. The latter is likely a far greater concern for Beijing, considering the scale of reef destruction caused by China’s construction of artificial “islands.” Asia analyst Victor Robert Lee has documented much of the environmental destruction wrought by the giant clam industry, while BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes has personally witnessed Tanmen fishermen in the act of poaching. Additionally, continuous arrests of Tanmen’s fishing vessels by Philippine authorities for poaching not only increases China’s diplomatic challenges, but also strengthens the Philippine narrative that it is taking action to protect the marine resources within its maritime claims. The reality at sea may be more complicated, since one Tanmen fishing captain recalled in 2012 that boarding and inspection by Philippine troops is common and he always brings enough cigarettes and alcohol to “pass” the imposed inspection.

There appears to be some effort by China’s local government authorities to reduce illicit harvesting. Recently, meetings were held with many of the fishing boat captains to instruct them not to fish illegally, poach endangered clams or turtles, enter sensitive waters, shut off their Beidou locating transmitters, or take private trips for rights protection. Tanmen officials may be taking heat for lax management of fishermen, especially since Xi placed his seal of approval on the Tanmen fishermen. Local officials may also worry about enthusiastic citizens, incited by official patriotic rhetoric, getting excessively involved in the state’s business of protecting China’s maritime claims.

These bureaucrats may be making parallel efforts in support of specific objectives. First, they seek to gain control over the wayward fishing population, to prevent tensions from flaring because of rising nationalism and illegal activities, to increase safe working conditions, and to demonstrate effective control in disputed sea areas. Second, Chinese leaders seek to maintain a civilian presence in disputed waters to reinforce China’s claims and to create demand for administrative services in the form of MLE protection. Economic realities and the threat of foreign interception can place these efforts in contradiction. Third, development of a more politically motivated, trained, and obedient maritime militia to conduct the state’s business in the South China Sea could be China’s answer to regular MLE presence in its disputed waters.

Financial Incentives

Incentives in the form of fuel subsidies, a special Spratly fishing subsidy, and money to build larger steel-hulled vessels have been implemented to induce Chinese fishermen to build better vessels and to spend the extra time and fuel to travel to more distant waters. With this support, Tanmen fishermen have reportedly ordered 29 new 500-ton fishing vessels from a shipyard in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province; most are already delivered. In 2011, Tanmen fishermen reported receiving a one-time subvention of 35,000 RMB (5,404.48 USD) and 82 RMB (12.66 USD) per KW of engine power in the fishing vessel for each trip taken to Scarborough Shoal or the Spratlys. For example, if known Tanmen maritime militiamen Ke Weixiu takes his new 500-ton fishing vessel with its 700 KW of power to Scarborough Shoal, he will receive 76,000 RMB (11,734.55 USD) for the first trip and 41,000 RMB (6,330.03 USD) for each consecutive trip taken. While this may not be sufficient to incentivize every fisherman to enter contested waters, maritime militia receiving these subsidies can in many cases legally apply for compensation for material losses and personal harm while executing mission orders. One Tanmen fishing captain interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation stated “We won’t go there [to the Spratlys] if the Government doesn’t pay us subsidies of about $20,000 each time, and we only get it if we commit to going four times a year. We don’t make money from the fishing.” Armed with more capable vessels and subsidies in hand, Tanmen maritime militia likely make more frequent trips to disputed waters than regular fishermen. This elite presence is precisely what China seeks to promote in sensitive waters.

Fleet Monitoring and Coordination

China’s indigenous Beidou/Compass satellite navigation system, a regional rival of the American global satellite positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) system and now installed on thousands of Chinese fishing vessels, appears frequently in state news. This system is an important tool for government departments monitoring China’s fishing fleets. Chinese media report that China’s fishing vessels receive government warnings when they cross into foreign waters that Beijing does not claim. Interestingly, for this to occur the Beidou system must possess a defined set of coordinates for China’s U-shaped maritime boundary claim that enables warnings to be issued when a fishing vessel ventures beyond “China’s waters.” Unfortunately, these coordinates for China’s “nine-dashed line” remain unknown to outsiders.

The Beidou system’s marine vessel monitoring system integrates positioning with communication, featuring a unique 120-character short-messaging service and an emergency distress button that instantly alerts fisheries authorities. Akin perhaps to a silent alarm used to catch bank robbers, this allows fisheries authorities to determine the vessel’s position and dispatch rescue forces to the location. The widespread installation of these satellite PNT systems, in combination with other communications gear given to the maritime militia, allows Chinese authorities to essentially form a “maritime border early warning” (预警国家海上边界) network. In the case of the People’s Armed Police Border Defense Station in Tanmen Township, Fu Shibao mans what has become colloquially known as the “South China Sea 110” (China’s equivalent to America’s 9-1-1 emergency service). His shore station uses the Beidou system, radios, and cellular coverage to maintain communications with approximately 135 of Tanmen’s vessels operating in the Paracels, Spratlys, and Macclesfield Bank. Each day he spends hours contacting these vessels at sea to check their status, provide weather updates, and disseminate important information about neighboring countries that would be of concern to the fishermen. Despite his assignment to a grassroots-level station, Fu and others manning the Tanmen Border Defense Station are able to provide disproportionate, continuous contributions to China’s overall maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea. Such a role was seen during the Scarborough Shoal standoff, wherein timely militia-to-police grassroots-level reporting provided the awareness for more professional forces to respond.

Given overall trends, in which a rising tide of economic growth and government investment may be channeled to raise all boats, local officials are able to foster maritime militia construction while furthering their other goals. Nevertheless, significant mission-incentive misalignments persist, requiring further efforts at their reconciliation. 

Conclusion: A Frontline Force Today… and Tomorrow

Xi Jinping’s designation of the Tanmen Maritime Militia as the model for others to emulate is no coincidence. Even among the leading maritime militias of Hainan Province, no other unit has made such significant contributions over time to Chinese feature construction and “rights” promotion in the increasingly-contested South China Sea. This long track record and official sanction has left a lengthy paper and electronic trail, a gold mine for open source research. This article has therefore examined in particular depth the Tanmen militia’s structure, missions, and management in order to better understand this leading organization, which remains a trusted tool of Beijing’s maritime policy, and to appreciate the lessons that other irregular Chinese sea forces may be drawing from its elevation.

The Tanmen Maritime Militia’s recent popular history is one of a small fishing village on the edge of a large civilization, working to address a tide of foreign encounters and national-level political movements. While most Tanmen fishermen did not previously consider their work to have national ramifications, recent Central Party policies and initiatives are changing that. President Xi and numerous other officials’ visits to Tanmen and elsewhere in the past few years have officially politicized the operations of China’s fishermen in the South China Sea. Local Party officials are re-invigorating an old communist tactic of ensuring Party control over China’s fishing fleets, with Tanmen’s maritime militia designated the exemplar for all others to follow. Tanmen Maritime Militia Company, with growing government support and guidance, will be expected to lead the fishing fleets to China’s claimed waters and provide support in the everyday struggle against foreign “aggression” in the South China Sea. Already, Tanmen Militia forces have helped to consolidate Chinese control over Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and to defend the HYSY-981 oil rig. Having long supported feature augmentation and facilities construction in the Spratlys, they might again be called to do so—particularly in situations calling for low-profile activity.

While this two-part article focuses primarily on activity after the modern Tanmen Militia’s formal establishment in 1985, Tanmen fishermen have a much longer relationship with the South China Sea. They are considered by Beijing to have stood the test of time, making their very existence and presence of value to its far-reaching maritime claims. Numerous instances of daring rescues and unshakeable nerve in the face of foreign attempts to contest maritime rights notwithstanding, the Tanmen Maritime Militia also represent an important model for emulation by other localities’ officials building up their own maritime militia.

Looking forward, recent reports suggest increased Chinese survey activity on Scarborough Shoal, with sources pointing to possible land reclamation efforts there later this year—perhaps as partial retribution for the forthcoming Philippine Arbitration ruling, likely to be issued in June 2016. Just as the Chinese government insisted so vehemently on having civilian designs in the feature augmentation and development it conducted in the Spratlys, any reclamation at Scarborough Shoal will likely be under the same pretext. Growing regional tensions over this possibility may prompt China to instead use the Tanmen Maritime Militia once again to construct a first generation of civilian structures, which might serve as the foundation for future artificial island bases. Underpinning this next step in Chinese geo(political)-reengineering would be the fishermen and maritime militia of Tanmen Township, who have paid the human price to maintain a Chinese presence at Scarborough Shoal. As U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations and other foreign activities occur in proximity to Beijing’s sweeping claims, Tanmen militiamen are likely to continue their frontline role as irregular defenders of the nation’s “maritime rights and interests.”

The next article in our series will delve into the establishment and development of the maritime militia of Sansha City, China’s newest city located on Woody Island in the Paracels. Often living on the Chinese occupied features of the South China Sea, Sansha City’s maritime militia are the true front-line defenders of China’s maritime claims. Surrounding these largely-transplanted island people is a growing torrent of reclamation and infrastructure investment in an increasingly (para)militarized South China 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 www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. 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.

Featured Image: “Escort Fleet” protects the HYSY-981 Oil Rig. Source: Phoenix News

A Cyber-Information Operations Offset Strategy for Countering the Surge of Chinese Power Pt. 2

The following is a two-part series on how the U.S. might better utilize cyberspace and information operations as a Third Offset. Part I evaluated current offset proposals and explores the strategic context. Part II provides specific cyber/IO operations and lines of effort. Read Part One here.

By Jake Bebber

Targeting China’s ability to control information is an efficient means to offset Chinese power. To be effective, the United States should adopt a “whole of government” approach, leveraging cyberspace and other information related capabilities that can hold China’s domestic internet filtering, censorship, and information dissemination capabilities at risk. This campaign should operate across the entire spectrum of conflict and engagement, from public diplomacy and strategic communication, to battlespace preparation, limited conflict, and if de-escalation is unsuccessful, full-spectrum military operations. It will likely require coordination and administration at the highest civilian leadership level. This will be a long-term campaign aiming to counter China during the critical window in the next ten to twenty years when Chinese economic and military power will surge, and then subside as demographic factors limit its growth causing China to enter into a period of decline and inherently shifts its focus inward to to maintain stability.

The United States will have to address three broad issues: access, authorities, and capabilities. Internet access into China is restricted from the outside, and it is reasonable to assume that during a period of rising tensions or even conflict, traditional means of accessing China’s “red space” (civilian, military, and government networks) will not be available. The U.S. will need alternative avenues into Chinese networks, which may take the form of radio frequency injection into wireless networks (Bluetooth, WiFi and WiMAX)[i] to other methods targeting the physical and logical network layers and cyber-persona layers[ii] of cyberspace for preplacement of access.

Figure 1. The Three Layers of Cyberspace[iii]
The Three Layers of Cyberspace [iii].

The authority of the U.S. government to operate in cyberspace crosses boundaries and jurisdictions, and largely depends on the function of the agency or entity. Traditional military activities conducted by the Department of Defense are covered under Title 10 of U.S. Code, with the principal being the Secretary of Defense. Other titles supporting cyberspace operations include foreign intelligence collection (Title 50), domestic security (Title 6), law enforcement (Title 18) and government information technology security and acquisition (Title 40).[iv] These authorities will have to be aligned and deconflicted.

The capabilities required run the spectrum. They can include fully attributable on-net operations, such as a Foreign Service Officer participating in an online forum or social network to communicate U.S. policy, to the development of tools and malware that can degrade and disrupt command and control networks. Other possibilities include the distribution of encrypted personal communication devices and unattributable social media and organizing applications that permit dissident groups within China to maintain situational awareness.

There have been attempts to respond to China’s growing Internet censorship capabilities by those in the telecommunications industry and by the U.S. government. The Global Network Initiative was started in 2008 by industry, civic organizations, and universities to “promote best practices related to the conduct of U.S. companies in countries with poor Internet freedom records.” In 2011, the President issued the “International Strategy for Cyberspace.” Its goals include “enabling continued innovation for increasing economic activity, increasing individuals’ ability to communicate with one another, safeguarding freedom of expression, association, and other freedoms, and enhancing both individual privacy and national and international security.” The U.S. Department of State includes Internet freedom as a part of its global human rights agenda. In 2006, State formed the Global Internet Freedom Taskforce which later became the NetFreedom Taskforce, to coordinate State Department efforts monitoring Internet freedom. Both the State Department and U.S Agency for International Development have received funding for the development of Internet censorship circumvention technologies, training of non-government organizations and activists, media assistance, and leading international policy formulation on Internet freedom.[v]

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) programs, also supports counter-censorship and circumvention software development and distribution. The VOA sends daily emails to “8 million Chinese citizens … with international and domestic news stories as well as information about how to use proxy servers.” The RFA has implemented the Freedom2Connect program to “research, develop, and deliver online tools for Internet users in China to securely browse online and send secure e-mail.”[vi]

While important, the current response by industry and government lacks both the senior policy coordination required of a grand strategy or adequate funding to keep up with China’s growing Internet monitoring and censorship capabilities. They do not fully leverage other assets and tools at America’s disposal. The U.S. can and should be doing much more to attack China’s critical vulnerabilities in information control.

Lines of Effort

Public Diplomacy – At the interagency level, the United States should continue pursuing bilateral, multilateral, and international agreements such as those mentioned above which promote freedom of information, expression and freedom from government oversight and censorship. The U.S. should also continue to strengthen international regimes against cybercrime and intellectual property theft. Internet norms and rules should be standardized across political boundaries where practical. This diplomatic effort ties into longstanding American policy of supporting freedom of speech and protection of universal human rights.

Economic Policy and Trade – Here again, longstanding American policy supporting property rights and free trade legitimize the continued advocacy of international agreements and accords promoting freedom in cyberspace. At the same time, the U.S. must tighten technology export controls to nations like China that continue to restrict access. In the event of industrial espionage or even cyber-attack, the U.S. can impose real economic costs and sanctions. The U.S. can also move on the Global Online Freedom Act, which would, among other things, prohibit U.S. companies from cooperating with foreign governments that engage in censorship or human rights abuses, require the U.S. Trade Representative to report on trade-related issues that arise out of a foreign government’s censorship policies, and impose export controls on telecommunications equipment that can be used to carry out censorship or surveillance.[vii] Some of these provisions can be waived when it suits American interests. In other areas, the U.S. can also promote public cybersecurity regimes, such as international risk insurance tools and accreditation that encourage network protection and hardening in the private sector.

Strategic Communication – In modern war, the actions of a single Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine can have a far-reaching impact on national strategy. While this is often used to highlight the potential implications of an untoward or controversial event, the reverse also holds true. The actions of every member of the U.S. government, from Foreign Service officer, embassy staff and humanitarian assistance officer to those of the military can have an equally positive impact if the appropriate messages are coordinated and timed to unfolding events. The United States should expand strategic communication tools such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Using new capabilities in cyberspace and in personal communications, a comprehensive program of unbiased news delivery and strategic messaging to the Chinese public on a much larger scale can, over time, provide alternatives to Chinese government propaganda. Not to be forgotten, approximately two million Chinese visit the United States each year as tourists[viii], and around a quarter of a million Chinese students attend college in the U.S.[ix] Each visitor and student represents an opportunity for engagement.

Cyberspace Operations – Being able to deliver effects in and through cyberspace to China is a question of both access and capabilities. China has one of the most robust and sophisticated information control systems in the world, with multiple internal security and military organizations and tens of thousands of Chinese working daily to censor communications and filter access within China and between China and the world. Network penetrations and preplacement access generation needs to occur now, during peacetime, and continue throughout in order to assure capabilities can be delivered when needed. The fact is that when tensions escalate and China erects more firewalls, penetration becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible. This leaves military commanders and policy-makers little choice but to revert to traditional kinetic tools to dissuade Chinese aggression – exactly the scenario they hope to avoid – and plays to China’s strengths. Developing multiple access vectors now with the capability to hold at-risk, at a time and place of our choosing, information control systems in the long run represent an efficient means of directly attacking China’s most critical vulnerability and holding the Communist Party’s political control at risk. This represents an asymmetric counter to China’s growing A2/AD capabilities, and is a far more efficient and economical alternative.

A snapshot image of cyber attacks. Source: Norse Corp.

Cyberspace operations reside on a continuum, sometimes offensive, sometimes defensive and sometimes both simultaneously. At the same time the U.S. is developing access vectors and tools to exploit China’s information control systems, it must also harden its own military, government, and civilian critical infrastructure networks. Research suggests that improving cyber defenses limit incentives to infiltrate networks for espionage, intellectual property theft, or cyber-attack. A resilience model should be adopted. Instead of building “cyber walls” using a traditional warfare model, cyber defense should model biological systems that can adapt and recover. Systems can be designed to turn the table on intrusions, misdirecting them down false alleys or “sinkholing” them in so-called “honeypots” for study. This can even be effective in passing back false information or simply causing the attacker to waste time and resources chasing phantoms.[x] On the offensive side of the continuum, experts like retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Thomas see the development and fielding of 13 offensive cyber warfare teams as significant. According to him, the Chinese “now know we are ready to go on the offense. There’s something that’s been put in place that I think is going to change their view.”[xi]

Clandestine Action – Due to the difficulties in acquiring and maintaining access in closed networks, the United States will have to undertake clandestine efforts, both in cyberspace and through traditional means. Policy makers should be careful, however, not to be lulled by the lure of technologically-based cyberspace operations as the preferable alternative to traditional human intelligence operations. While the U.S. is right to continue to pursue advances in unmanned vehicles, radio-frequency and electro-magnetic operations, and space-based computer and communication operations, obtaining and maintaining access  in many cases will require mixed-mode penetration: human and cyber action. Cultivating human sources to gain insight into leadership intentions, network configurations, and potential areas of exploitation remain a critical part of a broad information operations campaign. As China continues to pursue clandestine operations against the U.S., both to gather traditional intelligence and to enable their own cyberspace operations, our own counter-intelligence and cyberspace defense capabilities will become that much more important.

These lines of effort will have to be synchronized in a mutually supporting effort. Public diplomacy and strategic communication can be enabled in and through cyberspace. Clandestine action may be required to obtain and maintain access to critical networks. Economic incentives, technology export controls and sanctions will play critical roles at times to advance America’s interests to degrade or disrupt China’s information control systems.

It will be necessary to develop options which degrade China’s information control capabilities incrementally while preserving significant reserves. Historically, this has been especially tricky. Past experience, such as the Vietnam War, suggests that the incremental application of force with too fine of control tends to condition the adversary rather than compel the adversary. The U.S. will need to be able to send “warning shots” that indicate to the CCP that we possess capabilities that will cause them to lose control entirely and threaten their hold on power, allowing the U.S. to prevail. Of course, given that many cyberspace and IO capabilities are perishable once used, the U.S. will need to maintain a host of capabilities able to be delivered across multiple vectors and times and places of our choosing.

One must be mindful that while China’s information controls systems are a critical vulnerability, they are not a gateway to the overthrow of the CCP and the establishment of a democratic government, at least not right away. Data suggests that the vast majority of the Chinese public who utilize the Internet and social media are quite happy with the amount and variety of content available. Only about 10 percent use the Internet for political purposes with the remainder, like their American counterparts, using it for entertainment and socializing.[xii] Therefore, strategic messaging will have to be much less overt and subtler.

We should utilize the natural advantages the U.S. has in the entertainment and public relations world to encourage the public to put pressure on the government gradually, perhaps not directly in the political sphere but rather on natural fissures and tensions already resident, such as corruption, mismanagement, ethnic strife, uneven development, environmental degradation, and the growing wealth gap in China. Consider the recent effort by the U.S. Department of State to publicly highlight air quality in Beijing, resulting in embarrassment as well as change in China’s environmental policies.[xiii] Similar efforts, both public or through providing covert support to internal groups in China, would hopefully have similar impact. The goal will be to keep the CCP looking inward, concerned about social stability, rather than outward, projecting power.

To be successful, it will be necessary to understand at the highest level of detail possible not only the technical aspects of China’s information control apparatus but also its command, control and communication pathways, chain of command, and decision making calculus. Technical intelligence requirements would include network configuration pathways, router and server equipment models, operating and surveillance software versions, administrative controls, wireless hot points and air gaps and fiber network systems. The U.S. will need to know which agencies and bureaucracies are responsible for various kinds of surveillance and what their resident capabilities, gaps and scope of responsibility is. It would be helpful to identify key personalities and understand the resource competition between them in order to exploit them. We need to know how commands are passed down from leadership to operators, and if it is possible to deny, degrade, and in some way get in the middle of those communication pathways. We will also need to know the decision calculus of the Central Standing Committee. What will cause them to want to tighten control, or perhaps better yet, what might they simply ignore? This is certainly not an exhaustive list of intelligence requirements, but gives a sense of the kinds of information that a successful strategy will require.

China’s Response

In war, the enemy gets a vote, so policy makers and military commanders must carefully consider and “wargame” China’s response to a U.S. effort threatening its information control systems. By doing so, the U.S. can better prepare courses of action that counter potential Chinese responses. Traditionally, planners will break down adversary responses into two categories: most likely and most dangerous.

China’s responses are naturally shaped by their historic understanding of their place in the world, and especially the recent “Century of Humiliation” and the role that historical grievance plays in this understanding.[xiv] Attempting to shape the CCP’s ability to control information within China has a direct impact on the regime’s need to mobilize popular support in times of crisis or even war. The CCP has come to realize that “it cannot simply demand compliance and access to materials, people or facilities” as it probably once could during the days of Mao Zedong. The CCP and the PLA have undertaken “a systematic attempt to plan for mobilization, integrating it into economic development.”[xv] This planning includes “information mobilization” due to the “central role of information and information technology, especially in the context of informationized warfare.”[xvi] The various activities proposed here to attack critical vulnerabilities in China’s strategy should be viewed by policy-makers on a continuum of escalation. Public information campaigns highlighting air quality in Beijing will annoy the CCP in a much different way than denying China the ability to filter Internet content or threatening regime legitimacy.

March 22, 2013: Staff members of the newly-merged State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television pose for group photos during a ceremony to hang the new nameplate in Beijing (Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Zhen).
March 22, 2013: Staff members of the newly-merged State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television pose for group photos during a ceremony to hang a new nameplate in Beijing (Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Zhen).

China’s most likely course of action will be to continue to “plug the gaps” that any U.S. program creates in their information control system. This is a beneficial byproduct since the Chinese will continue to expend time and resources with an inward focus, possibly diverting some of its effort away from cyber espionage, or change its focus of cyber espionage from intellectual property theft to countering U.S. efforts. It will continue to partner with “like minded” regimes such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, perhaps targeting U.S. allies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, to advance an alternative international rule set and standard. China’s “Internet Agenda” will continue to focus on international recognition of state sovereignty over cyberspace, a global internet regulatory scheme that targets cybercrime and terrorism (with sufficiently vague definitions of “crime” and “terrorism” to allow for maximum latitude), and the legitimate role of the state to remain the “gatekeeper” to their country’s access to the internet.[xvii]

We can surmise what effect this strategy might have by examining world events and how the PRC responded when it felt threatened by internal pressures. For example, China has had a difficult relationship with some Muslim nations due to persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang province. The recent decision by Thailand to repatriate nearly 100 Uighurs back to China was met with harsh criticism from the United Nations Refugee Agency and the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch. Reporting suggests that Beijing may have pressured Bangkok, and Chinese persecution has strained relations with Turkey, which has both ethnic and religious ties to the Uighurs in Xinjiang.[xviii] In September of 2014, Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and member of the CCP, was sentenced to life in prison  by a Xinjiang court for “inciting separatism” and inviting “international opprobrium,” according to Georgetown University professor James A. Millward.[xix]

China’s continued crackdown on Internet access appears to be having a direct impact on business and foreign investment, according to surveys conducted by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China and the American Chamber of Commerce. Respondents noted that foreign firms feel “less welcome,” poor air quality makes it harder for firms to recruit executives, and that recent regulatory enforcement campaigns “target and hinder foreign companies.”[xx]

These two examples – internal repression, censorship and the impact on international relations and foreign investment – expose vulnerabilities in how China chooses to stem threats, which come at a cost to China. Therefore, we have insight into how proposed information activities which parallel previous events might look and the anticipated costs. A Cyberspace/IO Offset targeting China’s information control systems can be expected to result in more extreme or diverse efforts to clamp down on information and economic exchange, perhaps ratcheting up internal dissent or imposing economic costs as foreign investment slows.


By targeting China’s information control system, the United States can directly attack China’s most critical vulnerabilities and weaken its center of gravity, the Chinese Communist Party. By placing these controls at risk, PRC leadership will come to believe that their hold on power and ability to maintain domestic harmony is in jeopardy. This will permit the United States to effectively and efficiently counter Chinese power during a critical window of the next ten to twenty years, when demographic and economic headwinds will cause China to enter a period of decline.

A whole of government approach is often advocated but exceedingly difficult to execute in our federal system. The strategy will require careful coordination and long-term vision, two capabilities that Western democracies are notoriously deficient in. Due to the nature of the strategy, lines of effort and operations can become quickly compartmentalized in classified channels, which will make coordination that much more difficult. Importantly, much like the policy of containment against the Soviets, it will require buy in from across the political spectrum, also no easy task.

Ultimately, a Cyberspace-IO Offset permits the United States to leverage its unique advantages, both technological and historically ideological, to attack China’s critical vulnerabilities asymmetrically. Despite the challenge this strategy poses, the U.S. has shown historic resiliency and proven adaptability in the past, and the present is no different.

LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is a Cryptologic Warfare Officer assigned to United States Cyber Command. His previous assignments have included serving as an Information Operations officer in Afghanistan, Submarine Direct Support Officer and the Fleet Information Warfare Officer for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida. His writing has appeared in Proceedings, Parameters, Orbis and elsewhere. He lives in Millersville, Maryland and is supported by his wife, Dana and their two sons, Vincent and Zachary. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com.

[i] George K. Kostopoulos,  Cyberspace and Cybersecurity. (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2013).

[ii] Joint Publication 3-12 Cyberspace Operations defines the Physical Network Layer as “comprised of the geographic component and the physical network components. It is the medium where the data travel;” the Logical Network Layer as consisting of “those elements of the network that are related to one another in a way that is abstracted from the physical network, i.e., the form or relationships are not tied to an individual, specific path, or node;” and the Cyber-Persona Layer as “the people actually on the network. Cyber-personas may relate fairly directly to an actual person or entity, incorporating some biographical or corporate data, e-mail and IP address(es), Web pages, phone numbers, etc. However, one individual may have multiple cyber-persona, which may vary in the degree to which they are factually accurate. A single cyber-persona can have multiple users.”

[iii] Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-12 (R): Cyberspace Operations. (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2013).

[iv] Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-12(R): Cyberspace Operations.

[v] Thomas Lum, Patricia Moloney Figliona, and Matthew C. Weed. China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Chen Weihua. “2.1 Million Chinese to Visit US This Year.” China Daily USA, May 23, 2014, accessed December 24, 2014. http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/us/2014-05/23/content_17538066.htm

[ix] Institute of International Education. “Top 25 Places of Origin of International Students, 2011/12-2012/13.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. 2013.

[x] P.W. Singer and Allen Friedman. “Cult of the Cyber Offensive.” Foreign Policy. January 15, 2014, accessed Demcember 24, 2014. http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/01/15/cult-of-the-cyber-offensive/

[xi] David Fieth. “Timothy Thomas: Why China Is Reading Your Email.” The Wall Street Journal. March 29, 2013, accessed September 24, 2015 . http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323419104578376042379430724

[xii] Thomas Lum, Patricia Moloney Figliona, and Matthew C. Weed. China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy.

[xiii] David Roberts. “How the U.S. Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air.” Wired, March 6, 2015, accessed April 2, 2016. http://www.wired.com/2015/03/opinion-us-embassy-beijing-tweeted-clear-air/

[xiv] Zheng Wang. In China, History is a Religion. The Diplomat, June 16, 2014, accessed April 2, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2014/06/in-china-history-is-a-religion/

[xv] Dean Cheng, Converting the Potential to the Actual: Chinese Mobilization Policies and Planning, in The People’s Liberation Army and Contingency Planning in China, Ed by Andrew Scobell, Arthur S. Ding, Phillip C. Saunders and Scott W. Arnold (National Defense University Press: Washington DC, 2015). P. 130-131.

[xvi] Dean Cheng, Converting the Potential to the Actual. p 111.

[xvii] John Jamison. “China’s Internet Agency.” The Diplomat, December 23, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014. http://thediplomat.com/2014/12/chinas-internet-agenda/

[xviii] Oliver Holmes. “Thailand forcibly sends nearly 100 Uighur Muslims back to China.” The Guardian, July 9, 2015, accessed September 24, 2015.. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/09/thailand-forcibly-sends-nearly-100-uighur-muslims-back-to-china

[xix] James A. Millward.“China’s Fruitless Repression of the Uighurs.” The New York Times. September 28, 2014, accessed September 24, 2015.. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/29/opinion/chinas-fruitless-repression-of-the-uighurs.html

[xx] Calum MacLeod. “Foreign firms in China gripe about Internet, pollution.” USA Today, February 12, 2015, accessed Septmeber 24, 2015.http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/02/12/china-internet-curbs-hurt-us-business/23283491/

Asymmetric Maritime Diplomacy: Involving Coastguards, Maritime Militias in China Dealings

By Alex Calvo

Any objective assessment of developments in the South China Sea over the last few years cannot but conclude that Beijing is successfully expanding and achieving its goals, the ultimate being complete mastery over this body of water. Please note that we can no longer talk about “dispute” since this word fails to capture the essence of the conflict. There is also no point in demanding a “clarification” of Beijing’s objectives in a wishful attempt at integrating China into the post-war liberal order. Third, and most crucially, given that China is deploying a combined force made up of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), a number of Coastguard-like agencies, and a maritime militia, military to military contacts involving only the former are not only useless, they are counterproductive. By engaging the PLAN, in a bid to build trust and work toward agreements, such as the much touted Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, maritime democracies are dangerously ignoring China’s playbook. The PLAN does not operate in isolation. Instead, it follows a carefully orchestrated script featuring an internal division of labour, the coastguard agencies, and the maritime militia. Each has its role, and in some situations and missions they act separately, while in others they work as a team. Broadly speaking, most of the “dirty work” is carried out either by militia-crewed (or at least coordinated) “civilian ships” or by their coastguard counterparts, with the PLAN free to play the “good guy” role in a discreet second line.

This division of labour extends to diplomacy and military to military contacts: PLAN officers meet foreign counterparts, coast guard personnel keep a much lower international profile, and the maritime militias remain a domestic affair. This means that the objectives of these contacts are impossible from the start. What is the point of in engaging only the PLAN when it is just one part of the Chinese forces expanding in the South China Sea? How can we dream of integrating the PRC’s naval and maritime forces into some semblance of an international liberal order when the vast majority of their forces do not even take part in the exchanges and activities designed to bring this about?

 Heated altercation between a Chinese Coast Guard Cutter and a Vietnamese vessel in the South China Sea.
Heated altercation between a Chinese Coast Guard Cutter and a Vietnamese vessel in the South China Sea.

One of the eternal principles of war is the need to seize the initiative. For too long maritime nations in the South China Sea have simply been reacting to Chinese moves, playing into Beijing’s script. The solution is not to complain more loudly every time Beijing expands, or to rearm at the conventional level only, the solution involves seizing the initiative, playing by different rules (not China’s), and forcing the PRC to react for once. This has already happened in some instances, most notably the Philippines’ lawsuit under UNCLOS, but must now become the norm, not the exception.

In accordance with this need to seize the initiative, the following changes are necessary in military to military contacts and negotiations:

A) Maritime nations must refuse to take part in any negotiations where China’s Coastguard agencies and maritime militias are not represented. Dealings must take place only with delegations made up of the full range of institutions involved in territorial aggression in the South China Sea.

B) In order to make the above possible (and prevent Beijing from claiming that they are only sending PLAN personnel because they are just meeting naval officers), maritime nations must also include all equivalent agencies in their own delegations.

C) Third, when a maritime democracy does not have a maritime militia, it must be created. This can be accomplished, for example, by resorting to reserve personnel, maritime industries, and yacht owners associations.

Maritime democracies may also need to adopt measures to grow their fishing and merchant fleets in order to acquire the necessary dual-use assets to wage the non-lethal confrontation seen in the seas near China. 

Adopting an integrated approach to military to military contacts with China may require some cultural and institutional changes. It may be understandable for a naval officer to prefer the company of a fellow officer from another country to that of a fisherman. Equally understandable may be an officer’s somewhat detached view of clashes among fishing boats, or landings by civilian “activists,” but the nature of the mixed warfare being waged by China means that superior conventional naval forces cannot simply wait for war to break out in order to defeat the enemy in a conventional battle. A war may be lost while waiting for it to break out. In theory, Chinese expansion could be checked by drawing a line in the sand and employing conventional force if necessary. However, this is politically unrealistic, given that not even economic sanctions have been discussed in Washington and pacific rim capitals. If the United States and her partners are not even ready to make China pay an economic price for aggression, can they be expected to go to war? The answer cannot be any other than a clear and loud no, and the Chinese are fully aware of it. Hence their “salami slicing” strategy.

US Navy Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer and US Coast Guard Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter at sea.

If we rule out appeasement and surrender, then the only alternative left is to fight. Not to fight the war we would like, a war that is simply not on the menu, but the existing war being waged, and the one, we must regrettably say, which is being lost to date. In this war, the enemy is not simply using conventional forces, but a mixture of naval, non-naval state, and dual-use private assets. It is this complex reality that must be engaged with in attempts at confidence building and agreements negotiations. If it is not just PLAN officers working to conquer the South China Sea, what is the point in just talking to them? Shouldn’t we also be talking to their coast guard and militia counterparts?

This broad approach to military to military contacts is the only realistic approach to the current situation in the South China Sea (and the wider Indo Pacific). If actually resulting in agreements, they will be more likely to be respected, given that they will have been negotiated by the whole range of actors involved. If unsuccessful, then naval and maritime personnel from the nations of these contested waters will have gained a much better understanding of their foes. This will not only give them a clearer picture of the opposition, but will also help them make the necessary but often difficult and even painful cultural transition from leaders used to thinking in terms of conventional sea power to officers equally at ease when facing a trawler or a submarine, a missile fired in anger or a ramming fishing boat. Successful riverine operations in South Vietnam are a good example of a similar cultural and organizational change brought about by the need to fight a dual war, and the resulting transformation is a reminder that this is indeed possible.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College, 23 December 2013, available at http://www.usnwc.edu/Publications/Working-Papers/Documents/WP1-Calvo.aspx, can be found here.