Tag Archives: Maritime Militia

Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson Discuss China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations

By Dmitry Filipoff

On March 15th, the Naval Institute Press will publish China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, a volume edited by professors Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson from the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. CIMSEC recently reached out to Erickson and Martinson about their latest work.

Q: What was the genesis of your book?

Erickson: In the last decade or so, China has dramatically expanded its control and influence over strategically important parts of maritime East Asia. It has done so despite opposition from regional states, including the United States, and without firing a shot. Others have examined this topic, but we found that much of the public analysis and discussion was not grounded in solid mastery of the available Chinese sources—even though China tends to be much more transparent in Chinese. We also recognized a general lack of understanding about the two organizations on the front lines of Beijing’s seaward expansion: the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). This volume grew out of a conference we held in Newport in May 2017 to address some of these issues. It contains contributions from world-leading subject matter experts, with a wide range of commercial, technical, government, and scholarly experience and expertise. We’re honored to receive endorsements from top leaders in sea power, strategy, and policy: former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, former Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf, Harvard Professor Stephen Rosen, former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, Dr. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, and former Pentagon Director of Net Assessment Andrew Marshall.

Q: The title of your book is China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations. How does the term “gray zone” apply here?

Martinson: We usually prefer to use Chinese concepts when talking about Chinese behavior, and Chinese strategist do not generally use the term “gray zone.” But we think that the concept nicely captures the essence of the Chinese approach. We were inspired by the important work done by RAND analyst Michael Mazarr, who contributed a chapter to the volume. In his view, gray zone strategies have three primary characteristics. They seek to alter the status quo. They do so gradually. And they employ “unconventional” elements of state power. Today, a large proportion of Chinese-claimed maritime space is controlled or contested by other countries. This is the status quo that Beijing seeks to alter. Its campaign to assert control over these areas has progressed over a number of years. Clearly, then, Chinese leaders are in no rush to achieve their objectives. And while China’s Navy plays a very important role in this strategy, it is not the chief protagonist. 

Q: Who, then, are the chief actors?

Martinson: The CCG and the PAFMM perform the vast majority of Chinese maritime gray zone operations. Chinese strategists and spokespeople frame their actions as righteous efforts to protect China’s “maritime rights and interests.” The CCG uses law enforcement as a pretext for activities to assert Beijing’s prerogatives in disputed maritime space. PAFMM personnel are often disguised as civilian mariners, especially fishermen. Most do fish, at least some of the time. But they can be activated to conduct rights protection operations. And a new elite subcomponent is paid handsomely to engage in sovereignty promotion missions fulltime without fishing at all. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy also plays a role in disputed waters, serving what Chinese strategists call a “backstop” function. It discourages foreign countries from pushing back too forcefully and stands ready over the horizon to come to the aid of China’s gray zone forces should the situation escalate.

Q: Most readers will have heard about the China Coast Guard, but fewer may be familiar with the PAFMM. How is the PAFMM organized?

Erickson: The PAFMM is a state-organized, developed, and controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command. This component of China’s armed forces is locally supported, but answers to China’s centralized military bureaucracy, headed by Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping himself. While most retain day jobs, militiamen are organized into military units and receive military training, sometimes from China’s Navy. In recent years, there has been a push to professionalize the PAFMM. The Sansha City Maritime Militia, headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracels, is the model for a professional militia force. It is outfitted with seven dozen large new ships that resemble fishing trawlers but are actually purpose-built for gray zone operations. Lacking fishing responsibilities, personnel train for manifold peacetime and wartime contingencies, including with light arms, and deploy regularly to disputed South China Sea areas, even during fishing moratoriums.

Three types of maritime militia vessels depicted in the Office of Naval Intelligence’s China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Coast Guard, and Government Maritime Forces 2018 Recognition and Identification Guide. (Office of Naval Intelligence)

There are no solid numbers publicly available on the size of China’s maritime militia, but it is clearly the world’s largest. In fact, it is virtually the only one charged with involvement in sovereignty disputes: only Vietnam, one of the very last countries politically and bureaucratically similar to China, is known to have a similar force with a similar mission. China’s maritime militia draws on the world’s largest fishing fleet, incorporating through formal registration a portion of its thousands of fishing vessels, and the thousands of people who work aboard them as well as in other marine industries. The PAFMM thus recruits from the world’s largest fishing industry. According to China’s 2016 Fisheries Yearbook, China’s fishing industry employs 20,169,600 workers, mostly in traditional fishing practices, industry processing, and coastal aquaculture. Those who actually fish “on the water” number 1,753,618. They operate 187,200 “marine fishing vessels.” An unknown portion of these are militia boats. To give a sense of the size and distribution of PAFMM forces, our volume includes figures showing the location of leading militia units in two major maritime provinces: Hainan and Zhejiang.

Q: How is the CCG organized for gray zone operations?

Martinson: When we held the conference in 2017, the CCG was in the midst of a major organizational reform. It was only set up in 2013, the result of a decision to combine four different maritime law enforcement agencies. Before 2013, most rights protection operations were conducted by two civilian agencies: China Marine Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement. They did not cooperate well with each other. Moreover, neither had any real policing powers. After the CCG was created, it became clear that Beijing intended to transform it into a military organization. In early 2018, Beijing announced a decision to transfer the CCG from the State Oceanic Administration to the People’s Armed Police. At about the same time, the People’s Armed Police was placed under the control of the Central Military Commission. So, like the PAFMM, it is now a component of China’s armed forces. Moreover, CCG officers now have the authority to detain and charge foreign mariners for criminal offenses simply for being present in disputed areas of the East China Sea and South China Sea (although they have yet to use this authority in practice).

Q: How is the CCG equipped to assert China’s maritime claims?

Martinson: When Beijing’s gray zone campaign began in earnest in 2006, China’s maritime law enforcement forces were fairly weak. They owned few oceangoing cutters, and many of those that they did own were elderly vessels handed down from the PLA Navy or the country’s oceanographic research fleet. They were not purpose-built for “rights protection” missions. In recent years, however, Beijing has invested heavily in new platforms for the CCG. Today, China has by far the world’s largest coast guard, operating more maritime law enforcement vessels than the coast guards of all its regional neighbors combined. As the chapter by Joshua Hickey, Andrew Erickson, and Henry Holst points out, the CCG owns more than 220 ships over 500 tons, far surpassing Japan (with around 80 coast guard hulls over 500 tons), the United States (with around 50), and South Korea (with around 45). At over 10,000 tons full load, the CCG’s two Zhaotou-class patrol ships are the world’s largest coast guard vessels. The authors project that in 2020 China’s coast guard could have 260 ships capable of operating offshore (i.e., larger than 500 tons). Drawing from lessons learned while operating in disputed areas in the East and South China Seas, recent classes of Chinese coast guard vessels have seen major qualitative improvements. They are larger, faster, more maneuverable, and have enhanced firepower. Many CCG vessels are now armed with 30 mm and 76 mm cannons.

Q: It appears that these gray zone forces and operations are heavily focused on sovereignty disputes such as in the East and South China Seas. Are they also pursuing other goals and lines of effort?

Erickson: That is correct. The vast majority of maritime gray zone activities involve efforts to assert Chinese control and influence over disputed maritime space in what Chinese strategists term the “Near Seas.” When conducting rights protection operations, these forces help Beijing enforce its policies regarding which kinds of activities can and cannot take place in Chinese-claimed areas. The CCG and PAFMM intimidate and harass foreign civilians attempting to use the ocean for economic purposes, such as fishing and oil/gas development. Since at least 2011, for instance, China’s coast guard and militia forces have been charged with preventing Vietnam from developing offshore hydrocarbon reserves in its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), part of which overlaps with China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim. China’s gray zone forces also protect Chinese civilians operating “legally” in Chinese-claimed maritime space. The 2014 defense of Chinese drilling rig HYSY-981, discussed in detail in our volume, is a classic case of this type of gray zone operation. By controlling maritime space, China’s gray zone forces can also determine who can and cannot access disputed features. Since 2012, for instance, Chinese coast guard and militia forces have upheld Chinese control over Scarborough Reef. Today, Filipino fishermen can only operate there with China’s permission.

Q: What are some of the tactics employed by China’s gray zone forces?

Erickson: Most CCG cutters are unarmed, and PAFMM vessels are minimally armed at most. They assert Chinese prerogatives through employment of a range of nonlethal tactics. In many cases, Chinese gray zone ships are themselves the weapon: they bump, ram, and physically obstruct the moments of other vessels. They also employ powerful water cannons to damage sensitive equipment aboard foreign ships and flood their power plants. Foreign states are often helpless to respond because China has the region’s most powerful navy, which gives it escalation dominance.

Q: How have regional states reacted to Chinese maritime gray zone operations? Have some had more effective responses than others?

Martinson: Regional states have not presented China with a united front. They have each handled Chinese encroachments differently. China’s strongest neighboring sea power, Japan has taken the most vigorous actions. As Adam Liff outlines in his chapter, it has bolstered its naval and coast guard forces along its southern islands. It has also taken bold steps to publicize China’s gray zone actions. Vietnam has been a model of pushback against Beijing’s maritime expansion, as Bernard Moreland recounts in his chapter. But even its resistance has limits. In July 2017, Beijing likely used gray zone forces to compel Hanoi to cancel plans to develop oil and gas in its own EEZ, in cooperation with a Spanish company. Other states have taken a much more conciliatory approach to China’s incursions in the South China Sea. The Philippines, for example, is apparently acquiescing to Beijing’s desire to jointly develop disputed parts of the South China Sea—areas that a 2016 arbitration ruling clearly place under Philippine jurisdiction. Meanwhile, China continues to push Manila in other ways. Philippine supply shipments to Second Thomas Shoal are still subject to harassment. China has recently concentrated a fleet of gray zone forces just off the coast of Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, in an apparent effort to pressure Manila to discontinue long-planned repairs and updates to its facilities there.

Chinese fishing vessels massed off Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in January 2019. (CSIS/AMTI, DigitalGlobe)

At the same time, China itself continues to develop reclaimed land at Mischief Reef, a mostly submerged feature which because of its location clearly belongs to the Philippines. For its part, Malaysia has not publicly opposed Chinese incursions in its jurisdictional waters. But it is apparently proceeding with plans to develop seabed resources near the Chinese-claimed Luconia Shoals. Chinese coast guard vessels patrol the area, but have not forced a cessation of exploratory drilling operations—including those conducted by the Japanese-owned drilling rig Hakuryu 5 in February 2018. This story will be worth following, as Malaysia makes decisions about next steps. In 2016, Indonesia took robust actions to crack down on Chinese fishing activities near the southern part of the nine-dash line, northeast of its Natuna Islands. Things have been fairly quiet in the years since, perhaps because CCG vessels are escorting the fishing fleet to the area.

Q: It seems like China’s gray zone strategy is more often directed at other countries. Why is this topic important for U.S. national security?

Erickson: The U.S. Navy has also been targeted by China’s gray zone forces. U.S. Navy special mission ships such as the USNS Bowditch, USNS Impeccable, USNS Effective, USNS Victorious, and USNS Howard O. Lorenzen have been shadowed and harassed, victims of China’s erratically-enforced opposition to foreign naval activities within its claimed EEZ. To be sure, China’s gray zone campaign is largely targeted at other territorial claimants, but two of these countries—Japan and the Philippines—are U.S. allies. Washington’s robust alliance with Tokyo, in particular, is critical to American presence and peace preservation in a vital but vulnerable region. Chinese bullying behavior threatens to undermine these alliances and could trigger direct American military intervention if China’s gray zone operations were to escalate into armed attack. Moreover, as Jonathan Odom points out in his chapter, China’s activities violate important international conventions and norms. This means they are weakening key pillars of the international maritime order, and with it the global system on which peace and prosperity depend. In many cases China’s gray zone forces are used to assert maritime claims that have no basis in international law.

Q: And how can the U.S. Navy, as a more high-end force, better handle these sorts of Chinese paramilitary forces without risking escalation?

Martinson: If the United States wants to be effectual, it must do more to expose China’s gray zone activities, and it must accept a degree of risk in opposing them more strongly. China’s gray zone activities cannot be easily deterred, because each individual act is calculated to fall below American red lines. If Washington wants to get serious about countering China’s gray zone expansion, it must do more than conduct “presence” and “freedom of navigation” operations—which appear to sit at the heart of the current approach. The former cannot deter Beijing from taking tactical actions in the gray zone. The latter does little to defend the interests of allies and partners. In our concluding chapter, we suggest ways that the U.S. Navy can do more to help them protect their legitimate interests and defend the legal norms and conventions that China’s behavior threatens to erode. In short, the United States should be out there with them, operating on the front lines of China’s seaward expansion. To that end, it must develop a range of nonlethal tactics that it can use to achieve local effects without resorting to use of force.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 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/Brookings Institution Press, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: A China Coast Guard ship uses a water cannon to harass a Vietnamese law enforcement vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands on May 27, 2014. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun)

The U. S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea: Strategy or Folly?

By Michael D. Armour, Ph.D.

Introduction

Recently there has been discussions at the highest level of the U.S. military concerning the deployment of U.S. Coast Guard assets to the South China sea and integrating them into the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) conducted by the U.S. Navy relating to the manmade atolls constructed by the Chinese and subsequently claimed as Chinese sovereign territory. It may be that these U.S. Coast Guard units, if deployed to the area, may turn out to be a combat multiplier or a diplomatic plus. However, given the meager USCG budget and the limited assets of the service, their deployment may prove to be insignificant or even fraught with danger.

Chinese Territorial Expansion Claims

The South China Sea (SCS) has become a flashpoint on the world stage. The People’s Republic of China has asserted territorial claims for many islands in the Spratly and Parcel groups that other nations, such as Viet Nam and the Philippines, claim as their own sovereign territory. In addition to these claims, the Chinese have occupied and militarized many of the manmade atolls which they have constructed in the same area. The photo below of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly chain illustrates the militarization of these artificial atoll platforms and the amount of military hardware that has been installed on many of them.1

Fiery Cross Reef (CSIS AMTI)

Jeremy Bender reports that U.S. officials estimate that the Chinese construction at Fiery Cross Reef could accommodate an airstrip long enough for most of Beijing’s military aircraft and that China is also expanding manmade islands on Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Gaven Reef around the Spratlys  He goes on to say that China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructures including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks on some of the manmade atolls. These would likely be used as launching points for aerial defense operations in support of Chinese naval vessels in the southern reaches of the SCS.2 Additionally, China considers the waters surrounding these islands to be sovereign territory requiring foreign vessel notification before approaching the 12-mile limit.

U.S. Opposition

An international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s behavior in the SCS, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis. The tribunal also stated that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment.3 In relation to this the U. S. Navy has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) around these atolls. On October 27, 2015, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen transited within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of China’s artificially-built features in the SCS.4 On 10 May, 2016 the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.5 Also, in early 2016, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels without prior notification.6 According to Alex Lockie the Trump administration may be willing to continue these confrontational FONOPs which will surely heighten tensions in the area.7

Enter the China Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) is a critical tool in the effort to secure China’s maritime interests. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the enlargement and modernization of the China Coast Guard has improved China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims. In relation

to this, a survey conducted by China Power showed that of the 50 major incidents identified in the SCS, from 2010 onward, at least one CCG (or other Chinese maritime law enforcement) vessel was involved in 76 percent of incidents. Four additional incidents involved a Chinese naval vessel acting in a maritime law enforcement capacity, raising that number to 84 percent.8 China now possesses the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet and that it uses its law-enforcement cutters as an instrument of foreign policy.9 In relation to this, analysts conclude that in the flashpoints in the South China Sea, the Chinese are deploying coast guard ships and armed fishing vessels instead of its regular navy assets.10

Crest of the China Coast Guard

Enter the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)?

In January of 2017, Robbin Laird conducted an interview with the Commandant of the USCG, Admiral Paul Zukunft. He quoted the Admiral as stating the following in regard to the Coast Guard’s possible role in the SCS:

“I have discussed with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) the concept that we would create a permanent USCG presence in the South China Sea and related areas. This would allow us to expand our working relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. We can spearhead work with allies on freedom of navigation exercises as well.”11

The proposal to deploy USCG assets to the SCS was also espoused by David Barno and Nora Bensahel, who offered ways in which the United States could try to deter further Chinese encroachments in the SCS. One of their scenarios included the U.S. countering aggressive Chinese tactics by establishing a regular and visible Coast Guard presence in the area. They went on to say that:

“Only the United States has a major global coast guard capability, but some regional and even some international partners might be able to assist. As China has demonstrated, Coast Guard vessels are less provocative than warships, and their employment by the United States and partners could confront similar Chinese ships with far less risk of military escalation.”12

Others disagree with the above assessment. Brian Chao notes that the use of coast guard or constabulary forces in the South China Sea might actually increase the risk of war instead of easing tensions. He notes that using these forces as a diplomatic tool could lull all participants into a false sense of calm; however, these constabulary forces may be more willing to take aggressive actions because they may believe that the law is on their side.13

In addition to this negative stance, Aaron Picozzi and Lincoln Davidson question whether or not the U.S. Coast Guard could handle a mission in the South China Sea. They point out the reality that the U.S. Coast Guard lacks the capacity to base a “visible” presence in the SCS and that due to budget restraints, it simply does not have the ship capacity to carry out effective, sustained patrols in that area of operations. They also claim that the placement of U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the SCS would create a void in the service’s main mission, namely law enforcement, or search and rescue operations in home waters.14

If USCG assets are deployed to the SCS, it is hoped that because of the USCG’s good relations with its Chinese counterpart, tensions could be lessened and that U.S. interests could be better served. At this point, however, one must ask the following questions: What would happen if hostilities actually occurred and a situation arose pitting coast guard against coast guard? What kind of enemy capabilities and dangers would USCG personnel face?

The Capabilities, Structure, and Assets of the China Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) was created in 2013 by the merging of five different organizations. These included the China Marine Surveillance (CMS); the Department of Agriculture’s China Fisheries Law Enforcement; the Ministry of Public Security’s Border Defense Coast Guard; and the Maritime Anti-Smuggling Police of the General Administration of Customs and the Ministry of Transport.15

The largest operational unit of the CCG is the flotilla, which is a regimental-level unit. Every coastal province has one to three Coast Guard flotillas and there are twenty CCG flotillas across the country.16 In 2015 the CCG possessed at least 79 ships displacing more than 1,000 tons, among which, at least 24 displace more than 3,000 tons. Most of these ships are not armed with deck guns but are equipped with advanced non-lethal weaponry, including water cannons and sirens.17  However, it seems that other CCG vessels are being armed with an array of more lethal weaponry. The China Daily Mail has reported that a number of CCG ships are being equipped with weapons which will give them greater strength to intensify law enforcement on the sea. The article also stated that China will transform many fishery administration and marine surveillance ships into armed coast guard cutters.18 The CCG has deployed a vessel (3901) that will carry 76mm rapid-fire guns, two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft machine guns. This monster ship, displacing 12,000 tons, is larger than U.S. Navy aegis-equipped surface combatants.          

Chinese Coast Guard Mega Cutter 3901 (China Defense Blog)

Jane’s 360 reported that images circulated on the Chinese internet indicate that the CCG has equipped its lead Type 818 vessel with the Type 630 30 mm close-in weapon system (CIWS).Two turrets of the system have been installed above the ship’s helicopter hangar, providing it with a means of defense against guided munitions and hostile aircraft. Information also indicates that the ship has also been armed with a 76 mm PJ-26 naval gun as its primary weapon.19

Lyle Goldstein relates that the Type 818 design discussed above can be rapidly configured into a naval combat frigate. He denotes the key characteristics for this class of ship, including, “134 meters in length, 15 meters at the beam, 3900 tons, and with a maximum speed of 27 knots. The ship is armed with a 76mm main gun, two heavy 30mm machine guns, four high pressure water cannons, and will also wield a Z-9 helicopter.”20

A photo taken by the Japan Coast Guard on Dec. 22 shows a Chinese coast guard ship equipped with what appear to be gun turrets (circled) cruising in a sea area near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. (Japan Times)

Enter the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM)

In addition to their coast guard assets, the Chinese also deploy a vast number of fishing and merchant vessels that comprise what is referred to as the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM). China has the largest fishing fleet in the world and it uses these assets as a third force in their effort to control the South China Sea. The CMM is a paramilitary force that operates in conjunction with the CCG but is cloaked behind the international legal shield of being civilian commercial assets.21 A 1978 report estimated that China’s maritime militia consisted of 750,000 personnel and 140,000 vessels and a 2010 defense white paper reported that China had 8 million militia units with the CMM being a smaller subset of that group.

The CMM personnel are trained in activities such as reconnaissance, harassment and blocking maneuvers, and this organization possesses the potential to evolve into a more formidable maritime fighting force. Militia ships could be armed with light anti-ship missiles such as the C-101 or HY1-A and be trained in more elaborate tactics such as maritime swarm tactics interconnected by Network Centric Warfare (NCW).22

A crewmember on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23). Impeccable was conducting routine survey operations in international waters 75 miles south of Hainan Island when it was harassed by five Chinese vessels. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

Conclusion

It is entirely possible that the introduction of U.S. Coast Guard assets into the South China Sea area of operations will result in positive results in the form of increased capabilities and support off U.S. FONOPS and that USCG “white hulls” will relieve tensions in a conflicted milieu. However, there is also a possibility that USCG forces may become embroiled in actual conflict in the area; therefore, a comprehensive risk analysis should be undertaken before any considerable commitment is undertaken and the mission should be considered a “go” only if the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.

If the U.S. Coast Guard is faced with conflict in the South China Sea, it will not be alone in the effort. The full weight of the U.S. military will also be present. U.S. forces will be confronted with three levels of threat. These include the formidable Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the China Coast Guard, and the Chinese Maritime Militia.  It is obvious that the main counter to these entities will be the U.S. Navy and the allied navies in the area. The assets that the U.S. Coast Guard could contribute to the effort would be limited and the cost might be considerable. While such a mission would enhance the Coast Guard’s image, it may turn out to be folly rather than strategy.

Michael D Armour, Ph.D, retired as a Colonel from the U.S. Army and is an  Instructor of Political Science at The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee. He served as Adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and holds an M.S.S. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a member of Flotilla 15-03, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, in Memphis, Tennessee.

References

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/world/asia/what-china-has-been-building-in-the-south-china-sea.html

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/china-is-fortifying-position-in-south-china-sea-2015-1

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html

[4] https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-asserts-freedom-navigation-south-china-sea

[5] https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/us-navy-carries-out-third-fonop-south-china-sea

[6]  https://news.usni.org/2017/07/02/u-s-destroyer-conducts-freedom-navigation-operation-south-china-sea-past-chinese-island

[7] http://www.businessinsider.com/us-navy-freedom-of-navigation-south-china-sea-fonops-2017-2

[8] https://chinapower.csis.org/maritime-forces-destabilizing-asia/

[9] https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-04-0/chinas-second-navy

[10] https://chinadailymail.com/2017/06/17/china-marks-south-china-sea-claims-with-coast-guard-marine-militias/

[11] http://roilogolez.blogspot.com/2017/01/trump-kelly-us-coast-guard-in-south.html

[12] https://warontherocks.com/2016/06/a-guide-to-stepping-it-up-in-the-south-china-sea/

[13] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/coast-guards-could-accidently-spark-war-the-south-china-16766

[14] https://warontherocks.com/2016/06/can-the-u-s-coast-guard-take-on-the-south-china-sea/

[15] Martinson, Ryan D., “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard” A paper for the China as a “Maritime Power” Conference July 28-29, 2015 CNA Conference Facility Arlington, Virginia, p.2.

[16] https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=China%20Coast%20Guard&item_type=topic

[17] Martinson, op cit, pp. 44-45.

[18] https://chinadailymail.com/2013/06/19/china-coast-guard-ships-now-carry-weapons-in-south-china-sea/

[19] http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/chinas-new-coast-guard-vessels-are-designed-rapid-conversion-18221

[20 http://www.manilalivewire.com/2016/02/china-is-arming-its-coast-guard-ships-with-sophisticated-weaponry-reports/

[22] Kraska, James and Monti, Michael, The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia, International Law Studies, Vol. 91, 2015.

[23] http://dailycaller.com/2016/09/24/how-the-us-should-respond-to-chinas-secret-weapon/

[24] Armour, Michael D., The Chinese Maritime Militia: A Perfect Swarm? Journal of Defense Studies, Vol. 10, No.3, July-September 2016, pp. 21-39.

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell returns to homeport in San Diego after a 90-day counter drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Oct. 6, 2014. During the patrol, the Boutwell participated in six separate cocaine interdictions. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell)

U.S. Options for the People’s Republic of China’s Maritime Militias

This article originally featured on Divergent Options and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Blake Herzinger


National Security Situation:  People’s Republic of China (PRC) Maritime Militias operating in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  February 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 6, 2017.

Author and/or Article Point of View: Author believes in freedom of navigation and maintenance of good order at sea in accordance with customary and written law of the sea. The article is written from the point of view of U.S. sea services leadership toward countering PRC maritime irregulars at sea.

Background:  The PRC employs irregular militia forces at sea alongside naval and maritime law enforcement units.  By deploying these so-called “blue hulls” manned by un-uniformed (or selectively-uniformed) militiamen, the PRC presses its maritime claims and confronts foreign sea services within a “gray zone[1].”  In keeping with national traditions of People’s War, PRC Maritime Militias seek advantage through asymmetry, while opposing competitors whose rules of engagement are based on international law.  The PRC Maritime Militia participated in several of the most provocative PRC acts in the SCS, including the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and the 2014 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) 981 confrontation with Vietnam that also involved the smaller Vietnam Maritime Militia[2].

Significance:  On its surface, employing irregular forces may be an attractive option for a state facing a more powerful opponent, or for a state interested in “a less provocative means of promoting its strategic goal of regional hegemony” such as the PRC[3].  However, incorporating these irregular forces into a hybrid national strategy has deleterious impacts on the structure of the international legal system, particularly in maritime law and the laws of naval warfare[4].  PRC Maritime Militias’ use of “civilian” fishing vessels to support, and conduct, military operations distorts this legal structure by obfuscating the force’s identity and flaunting established international legal boundaries.

Option #1:  U.S. political and military leaders engage the PRC/People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) directly and publicly on the existence and operations of the Maritime Militia, insist upon adherence to internationally-accepted legal identification of vessels and personnel[6], and convey what costs will be imposed on the PRC/PLAN if they do not change their behavior.

As an example, the Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, has voiced his frustration with PLAN unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the PRC Maritime Militia and its relationships with state law enforcement and military forces[5]. In the event that the PRC declines to engage in dialogue regarding the Maritime Militia, discontinuing PLAN participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercise is the suggested response.

Risk:  Without clearly attaching costs to continued use of militia forces in operations against the USN, Option #1 is unlikely to affect PRC behavior.  Conveying possible imposed costs carries risk of further-degrading relations between the U.S. and PRC, but it is precisely PRC perceptions of their behavior as costless that encourages the behaviors exhibited by the PRC’s Maritime Militia[7].

Gain:  Option #1 is an excellent opportunity for the U.S. to underline its commitment to good order at sea and a rules-based maritime order.  By encouraging the PRC to acknowledge the Maritime Militia and its associated command structure, the U.S. can cut through the ambiguity and civilian camouflage under which the Maritime Militia has operated unchallenged.  In the event that the PRC declines to engage, conveying the possible imposition of costs may serve as a warning that behavior negatively affecting good order at sea will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Option #2:  U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF-W) assists the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in developing and implementing an organic maritime domain awareness (MDA) capability with domestic, and international, interagency sharing and response capability.  For the purposes of this article, MDA will be understood to be a host-nation’s ability to “collect, fuse, analyze and disseminate maritime data, information and intelligence relating to potential threats to [its] security, safety, economy or environment[8].”

Risk:  Close to a score of abandoned information portals and sharing infrastructures have been tried and failed in Southeast Asia, a cautionary tale regarding the risk of wasted resources.  Building upon over 20 years of JIATF-W’s experience should help to mitigate this risk, so long as an MDA solution is developed cooperatively and not simply imposed upon ASEAN.

Gain:  By providing focused and long-term support to an ASEAN-led solution, the U.S. can make progress in an area where MDA has been plagued by reticence, and occasionally inability to share vital information across interagency and national borders.  Shared awareness and cooperation at sea will combat the ability of the PRC Maritime Militia to operate uncontested in the SCS by enabling more effective law enforcement and naval response by affected countries.  Working through existing regional institutions such as Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre would add increased value to Option #2.

Option #3:  Utilize U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to provide law enforcement and maritime safety training support to states bordering the ECS/SCS interested in creating their own maritime militias.

Risk:  Expanding a concept that is damaging the rules-based order may increase the rate of disintegration of good order at sea.  Any observable indication that the U.S. is encouraging the creation of irregular maritime forces would likely be viewed negatively by the PRC.  Option #3 carries risk of engendering diplomatic or military conflict between the U.S. and PRC, or between the PRC and U.S. partners.

Gain:  Option #3 might provide some level of parity for states facing PRC militia vessels.  Vietnam has already made the decision to pursue development of a maritime militia and others may follow in hopes of countering the PRC’s irregular capability.  USCG involvement in the organizational development and training of militias might provide some limited opportunities to shape their behavior and encourage responsible employment of militia forces.

Other Comments:  Encouragement for the expansion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is not addressed.  The CUES  was adopted during the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and provides a basis for communications, maritime safety, and maneuvering guidelines for use by ships and aircraft in unplanned encounters at sea.  CUES is not a legally binding document, but an agreed-upon protocol for managing potentially escalatory encounters in the Pacific[9].  This author believes coast guards adjoining the contested areas of the ECS and SCS will continue to resist CUES adoption in order to maintain operational latitude.  Given the reticence of coast guards to accede to the agreement, drawing PRC Maritime Militia into CUES seems an unrealistic possibility.

Recommendation:  None.

Blake Herzinger served in the United States Navy in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida. He is presently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and assists the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. His writing has appeared in Proceedings and The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Endnotes:

[1]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[2]  Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident,” CIMSEC, 21 April 2016, http://cimsec.org/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/24573

[3]  James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies 91.450 (2015): 465, http://stockton.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Christopher Cavas, “China’s Maritime Militia a Growing Concern,” DefenseNews, November 21, 2016,  http://www.defensenews.com/articles/new-website-will-allow-marines-to-share-training-videos

[6]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[7]  The Struggle for Law in the South China Sea, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of James Kraska, U.S. Naval War College).

[8]  Secretary of the Navy Approves Strategic Plan for Maritime Domain Awareness, U.S. Navy, Last updated 8 October 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp? story_id=91417

[9]  Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, USNI News, Last updated 22 August 2016, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea

Featured Image: Reuters video journalist Peter Blaza (C), with assistant Oscar Abunyawan (R), films a Chinese fishing vessel docked on the mouth of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, April 6, 2017. Picture taken April 6, 2017. (Erik De Castro, Reuters)

Hainan’s Maritime Militia: All Hands on Deck for Sovereignty Pt. 3

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Part I and II of this conclusion to our series on Hainan’s maritime militia discussed the Hainan Provincial Military District (MD) leadership’s approach to constructing maritime militia forces in response to national militia guidelines and how they address challenges during construction efforts. This final installment in our series offers a glimpse into what the Hainan MD’s efforts have yielded in force scale. It also examines the incentivizes motivating the builders of this force, such as political drivers and pressures confronting local officials. The conclusion also outlines issues meriting further observation and analysis, such as the significance of the Sansha Maritime Militia force for China’s third sea force more broadly, and the degree to which Chinese officials frame related efforts as part of a “People’s War.”

Although this series has discussed in depth four key locations for maritime militia development, they are part of a far broader effort by the entire Hainan MD. The maritime militia units of Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen, and Sansha should not be seen in isolation, but rather as elements of the Hainan MD militia force system. Directed by national militia construction guidelines and a highly publicized visit by paramount leader Xi Jinping to the Tanmen Maritime Militia, every other county in Hainan Province has established singular or multiple maritime militia units. These include districts of the provincial capital Haikou and many other directly administered and autonomous counties. Additional noteworthy maritime militia units are located in Lingshui County, Chengmai County, Changjiang Li Autonomous County, Wanning City, and Dongfang City. While our research to date has not revealed them to be on the same level of the four leading units in the totality of their documented capabilities or achievements, they nonetheless merit further examination. Dongfang and Wanning Cities’ maritime militia, for example, participated in defense of China’s HYSY-981 oil rig alongside the better-known Sanya and Tanmen maritime militia units.

Below is a map depicting all of the 31 maritime militia units under the Hainan MD jurisdiction identified as we conducted research for this series.

While local conditions produce considerable variety in unit scale and type, one can notionally estimate the total number of personnel and vessels in Hainan’s maritime militia force by assuming that the 31 units displayed are the rough median size of a militia company. Most maritime militia units, often referred to using tactical-level unit organization terms such as “fendui” (分队) or “company” (连), may comprise around 120 personnel and 10 vessels. This would yield a hypothetical total of 3,720 personnel and 310 vessels in Hainan’s maritime militia force. Such estimation is admittedly imprecise: Chinese organizational terms often lack both alignment with Western equivalents and consistency with regard to precise status and numerical size. As Kenneth Allen and Jana Allen explain, “Different Chinese and English dictionaries translate fendui (分队) as subunit, detachment, element, or battery…Although fendui refers specifically to battalions, companies, platoons, and sometimes squads, which together comprise the grassroots level (基层), a fendui can also refer to an ad hoc grouping of personnel organized for a particular function.” Moreover, characteristics specific to China’s maritime militia may accentuate organizational and numerical variation: some units lack vessels organic to the unit and rely on the requisitioning of civilian vessels for training and missions. Other detachments vary in size from 70 to over 300 personnel. Units also vary considerably in capability. Sansha City’s new maritime militia fleet, for instance, is vastly superior to the Chengmai County Maritime Militia Company.   

The overall distribution of Hainan’s maritime militia force reflects the militia-building responsibility given to each locality as contained in the commonly invoked guidance that “provinces build battalions, cities build fendui, and counties build companies” (省建大队、市建分队、县建中队). While Hainan Province lacks a battalion-level unit and adherence to this formulation is less than exact, its various cities and counties have all established maritime militia fendui or companies. Required by the Hainan MD, every single Hainanese coastal city and county with a harbor has established its own maritime militia force.  

Incentivizing Cadres

As documented throughout this series, China’s civilian and military leaders find strategic and operational advantages in the maritime militia, and have made use of these forces at sea. While key cities and counties with marine economies are sufficiently robust to support capable maritime militia forces, other localities with far less potential to form an elite maritime militia are nevertheless developing their own units. Other factors may also be driving this buildup. While this series has already surveyed the carefully-calibrated incentives available to maritime militia personnel for their services, it has not yet directly addressed the motivation of local officials involved in building the militia. This is ever-more critical: local civilian and military officials represent the key force in building the militia, which do not organize autonomously. This section will therefore consider the role of provincial politics and bureaucrats’ incentives in maritime militia building.

There is an obvious political dynamic involved in militia building, harking back to China’s radical past when revolutionary zeal constituted a criterion for cadres’ selection or promotion. To further their Party careers, local officials naturally embrace and support major political campaigns and policies. As China pursues regional predominance in maritime power militarily and economically, major national resources are being lavished on coastal provinces and their maritime forces. China is also actively working to boost the population’s maritime consciousness through a variety of measures, including by cultivating and publicly praising maritime militia leaders and their units. Hainan MD Commander Zhang Jian and Political Commissar Liu Xin wrote that leaders of People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD) should strive to be “rights protection commanders and political commissars,” and government leaders should serve as “rights protection secretaries or mayors.” Cadre evaluation, according to Zhang, rewards those who take the initiative in upholding China’s claimed maritime rights, suggesting increased opportunities for career advancement by local officials thus dedicated. Such grassroots forces are also intended to spread maritime awareness and consciousness among the masses, forming a component of national defense education on maritime affairs conducted by local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Commands.  

Success in maritime militia work can help local officials impress their superiors, potentially facilitating advancement. Numerous accolades are accorded governments, institutions, enterprises, units and individuals that contribute exceptionally to national defense efforts. Sansha City recently garnered national attention when it was designated a “National Double-Support Model City” in recognition of its exceptional assistance to the military, with which the Sansha Maritime Militia cooperates. The famous Tanmen Maritime Militia Company, which received a visit from President Xi Jinping in 2013 on the first anniversary of the Scarborough Shoal Incident, had previously earned numerous plaudits from the PLA for its persistent sea service. Having recently garnered multiple awards for its armed forces work, Lingshui County has made major progress in developing its maritime militia force. Reflecting such success, nine civilian armed forces cadres who worked with the militia have since risen to township deputy mayor and deputy party secretary positions, suggesting opportunities for career mobility through militia work.  

Numerous reports celebrate the diligence of the Lingshui County PAFD Political Commissar Colonel Xing Jincheng on building up the maritime militia under his authority. After transferring to the Lingshui PAFD from his position as deputy political commissar of a PLA regiment, Colonel Xing expressed an unwillingness to relax in an easy “reserves” job. Dismissing suggestions that he rest after a long career, and ride out his final posting on Hainan’s scenic southern coast, Xing is lionized for instead devoting great energy to enforcing strict discipline in the PAFD staff and in building the Lingshui Maritime Militia. Extensive media coverage of Xing puts his efforts in the context of the latest PLA reforms; and the growing mission role of maritime rights protection, extending down to even grassroots PAFDs.  

Other reports indicate that local government officials must fulfill their responsibilities in supporting national defense mobilization work as a key function of their position or else risk losing their jobs. For example, an article in the November 2016 issue of China’s Militia featuring Guangxi Autonomous Region’s efforts in this respect included an unattributed quote referencing military work by local civilian government and Party leaders: “[those] who don’t stress the importance of and cannot grasp armed forces work are incompetent and derelict in their duties.” The article then explains how Guangxi Party and government officials have increased their maritime militia force in response to the growing mission of rights protection in the South China Sea. China has raised Military-Civilian Fusion to the level of national strategy, as documented in the 2013 doctrinal volume Science of Military Strategy. As a result, officials in coastal provinces can be subject to performance metrics in construction of “maritime mobilization forces” (such as maritime militia) when considered for career advancement.

October 2016: Sansha Maritime Militia in the Paracels prepare to conduct a joint patrol with troops of the Sansha PLA Garrison (Wen Wei Po).

A Patriotic Employment Release Valve

The reduction in PLA Army personnel by 300,000 announced in September 2015 will likely exacerbate the growing number of PLA veterans who feel neglected by China’s government and society. Recent protests in Beijing by veterans groups highlight the fact that provincial MDs and governments are ill-prepared to deal with the newly demobilized troops that are currently or will soon be deprived of their previous employment. PAFDs are the front-line military departments that handle veteran’s affairs and work to reintegrate veterans into society. Responsible for organizing and managing local militia units, the thousands of county PAFDs across China can easily funnel these veterans into various militia units, affording these former soldiers a new chance to serve in leadership positions among the militia force. Indeed, news coverage of Lingshui County states more and more demobilized veterans are entering the maritime militia, becoming “the ‘vanguard’ in maritime rights protection.” The Hainan MD thus occupies advantageous terrain for converting demobilized PLA troops into a new grassroots force for furthering Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The Sansha Maritime Militia fleet exemplifies this new trend. Our installment on this unit documented how this new “state-run militia fishing fleet” functions primarily as a force for maritime rights protection. A break from the more traditional mode of maritime militia construction, as exemplified by the Tanmen Maritime Militia, this new fleet is manned by professional mariners, law enforcement, and PLA veterans who earn substantial salaries regardless of fishing catch performance. Chinese sources anticipated correctly that most of this fleet’s 84 vessels would be delivered by the end of 2016. In December 2015, the Guangzhou Taicheng Shipbuilding Industry Co. Ltd. featured one such vessel on its website, whose interior it furnished as a subcontractor following its construction by Xijiang Shipyard. The accompanying description stated that the vessel had a “weapons and equipment room” (武备库) and an “ammunition store” (弹药库). Open sources reveal this vessel, Qiongsanshayu 000212, to be part of the new fleet of Sansha Maritime Militia vessels delivered to the state-run Sansha City Fisheries Development Company, which operate under the guise of fishing. Details available in other open sources, some of which show the Sansha Maritime Militia training to load “light weapons” onto the deck of these new vessels, help confirm the intended roles and identities of this new militia fleet.

Openly available AIS data has identified all of the 84 Sansha Maritime Militia vessels operating in the South China Sea. Intermittent AIS transmissions (available via the website Marine Traffic) indicate that at least seven different Sansha Maritime Militia vessels were present at Scarborough Shoal at varying times, and 17 more vessels observed at Mischief Reef. While vessels may transmit AIS signals when operating singularly or in small groups, maritime militia vessels most likely move in larger groups: the Sansha Maritime Militia fleet comprises six companies, which generally operate as units. Openly available satellite imagery (e.g., from Google) also shows such vessel groups moored at Mischief and Subi reefs. In September 2016, the Philippine Ministry of Defense released photos of Sansha’s maritime militia vessels at Scarborough Shoal. Despite Philippine statements in October 2016 that PRC ships had left the shoal, AIS data reveal that Sansha Maritime Militia and CCG vessels were present there as recently as February to mid-April 2017. As this report went to press, AIS data and satellite images confirmed the presence of Sansha Maritime Militia vessels at Scarborough Shoal, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef.    

7 September 2016: The Philippines released photos showing two Sansha Maritime Militia vessels present at Scarborough Shoal.
A Google Earth image dated 30 April 2016 shows a Sansha Maritime Militia vessel alongside a China Coast Guard cutter at the recently built wharf at Subi Reef.

Sansha City Fisheries Development Company, the commercial name for its state-run militia fleet, was established quietly with little mention in the PRC press. This contrasted markedly with the often widespread fanfare and in-depth reporting on even minor economic achievements by Sansha City and Hainan’s marine economy. After all, local officials have every incentive to promote their advancement by trumpeting economic development, a key performance metric—unless instructed otherwise for information security reasons. The rapid construction of this militia fleet since its establishment in February 2015 raises the prospect of China replicating this new model of maritime militia building elsewhere, perhaps in the East China Sea. As part of any Chinese effort to prepare for East China Sea operations, one might imagine an analog to the Sansha Maritime Militia in another archipelagic municipality, such as Zhejiang Province’s Zhoushan City. It is clear that China has not abandoned the standard model of building the maritime militia out of existing commercial fishing and shipping fleets. However, the combined pressures of a commercial shipbuilding slump, large numbers of unemployed veterans reentering civil society, and benefits to political and military careers in local officials may make the Sansha Maritime Militia model attractive to other provinces.

With numerous projects and investments, Hainan Province is striving to become a global tourism destination. Major influxes of Chinese and foreign tourists toting smartphones and digital cameras make the Hainan MD’s task of ensuring security and secrecy in its military facilities increasingly arduous. Sanya City, for instance, is not only a popular vacation destination but also contains the Yulin Naval Base, a leading home for China’s secretive ballistic-missile submarine force. One of the militia’s missions is the security of important infrastructure and operations such as key ports or coastal patrols. Militia personnel also reportedly perform security functions to protect military facilities and national defense construction projects.

Finally, an additional security function of Hainan’s advanced maritime militia units is escorting China’s growing fleet of research vessels that perform hydrographic and geologic surveys. We introduced one example in our installment on Sanya’s maritime militia: the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co. Ltd.’s 30-day escort mission for China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s April 2013 exploration in the Zhongjiannan basin south of Triton Island. This was the location of the HYSY-981 oil rig incident a year later. In another example, the Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey Office stated on its website in an undated article that “for years, our office has hired fishing vessels as escorts during every seismic and drilling operation for the protection of underwater cables and to ensure the smooth and safe progress of operations.” U.S. Naval War College professor Ryan Martinson has made public some of the most recent escort operations conducted by fishing vessels for PRC survey vessels. While the extent of the Hainan Maritime Militia’s continued involvement in these escort operations remains unclear, it appears to be a growing mission for China’s maritime militia overall and worthy of additional research.      

Conclusion: People’s War Turns Seaward

This series has surveyed only a small portion of China’s total maritime militia force, the world’s largest. Part 1 examined national militia development guidelines and how they were translated by Hainan Province during its recent spate of maritime militia construction. Part 2 explored challenges confronting Hainan Province in its development of maritime militia forces and some of the solutions introduced to address them. Hainan Province is a key maritime frontier province, charged with administering all of Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims. Yet Hainan as a province and military district does not build its maritime militia in isolation. It is, rather, one of many coastal provinces that raise such forces. In fact, other more economically and technologically advanced provinces—such as Guangdong and Zhejiang—possess greater socioeconomic bases on which to develop larger-scale, more technically sophisticated maritime militia units. Provinces construct militia forces in response to national militia guidelines under a dual-responsibility system between government/Party and PLA leaders. The resulting maritime militia fleets are thus made available to operate alongside the PLA Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard, as well as other provinces’ maritime militia forces. Case in point: China’s defense of its HYSY-981 oil rig in 2014. PLA senior colonel and Professor Jiao Zhili of the Nanjing Army Command College’s National Defense Mobilization Department described the event as mobilization for military struggle: “during the ‘981’ offshore platform’s struggle with Vietnam in the South China Sea, the emergency mobilization of militia from Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi to the front lines on the perimeter was a major strategic deterrent for Vietnam.” The mobilization orders for this event originated in the former Guangzhou Military Region, now the Southern Theater Command. While maritime militia units are raised and directed by individual provinces, they fulfill roles within a grander regional military structure.

These forces are often discussed by outside observers in reference to China’s gray zone operations, while Chinese authors often invoke the tradition of People’s War when discussing the militia. The study of these irregular maritime forces begs the question of whether we are witnessing a form of “Maritime People’s War.” In Chinese strategic thought, People’s War is regarded as the mixed use of regular and irregular forces in peacetime (and wartime if necessary) to overcome a superior adversary (or multiple adversaries) through the adroit use of various tactics, deceit, and protraction. The PLA continues to uphold the core concept of People’s War, adapting and evolving specific elements of the strategy to suit modern strategic and operational needs. China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, for instance, states that the PLAN is “exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions.” As current strategic considerations call for prioritizing the enhancement of China’s maritime defenses, the PLA is likely expanding the operational space of People’s War to cover Chinese maritime claims to the maximum extent feasible.

For China’s provinces, the MD system is described as the “practical application of people’s war thought in the military system” and an important channel through which civilian-military integration efforts are implemented. Hainan MD Commander Zhang Jian also describes the missions of the Hainan MD’s maritime militia in terms of a Maritime People’s War. He advocates “us[ing] maritime people’s war as a means to declare sovereignty, participate in development, cooperate with law enforcement, and support combat operations.” Zhang outlined how the maritime militia will conduct missions within joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense operations, essentially making combined use of the main forces of the PLA services and the local forces of the provinces. Such amalgamation is a defining feature of People’s War. The incidents this series has explored illustrate the multifarious tools that China utilizes in order to seize tactical advantages envisioned in traditional concepts of People’s War. Provinces and their local forces undoubtedly comprise the fundamental elements of People’s War, and remarks by Chinese officials like State Councilor and Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan’s in August 2016 suggest official endorsement of such strategies. This raises questions beyond the scope of this series that require further research, particularly in reconciling China’s continued national tradition of militia building with the realities of modern warfare. This topic is certainly not absent from debate in China, as analysts wrestle with the adaptation and evolution of People’s War to suit supporting roles for the PLA of today. As China adapts a time-honored concept to serve growing maritime security interests, the maritime militia is proving critical to its operationalization.

At the very least, this series demonstrates the widespread local mandate for maritime militia building in Chinese provinces such as Hainan. Maritime militia building is directed by official policy in China’s coastal provinces. Most coastal counties and cities raise and sustain their own maritime militia units according to the scale of their respective marine economies. While the Chinese government may not often admit openly and outwardly to using its maritime militia forces to support its objectives at sea, the voices of key stakeholders inside China and the central guidance passed down to the provinces reveal much about plans to construct and use these forces. Regardless of how these forces are characterized, provinces use them to protect China’s claimed maritime rights and interests and to support an increasingly blue-water-capable PLAN by dispatching greater numbers of militia personnel away from their shorelines to increase China’s strategic depth at sea.

Numerous PLA authorities, including Commander Zhang Jian, articulate the value the presence of fishing vessels has in all of waters claimed by China to demonstrate sovereignty and protect maritime rights and interests. Deputy Director Xu Kui of the National Defense University’s National Defense Mobilization Research Department explains how the maritime militia is a key force under China’s new “military strategic guideline” of preparing for maritime military struggle, and that it must “maintain a regular presence in disputed waters.” Echoing others, Xu cites the longstanding success of the Tanmen Maritime Militia in preserving Chinese presence in the Spratlys. The Tanmen Maritime Militia offers living testimony to how even a single township or county can impact the status quo in maritime East Asia. This consideration is not lost on China’s leaders, and Hainan’s leading maritime militia units represent prime examples of the diverse avenues of force that Chinese provinces can develop and contribute in the service of overall national maritime ambitions.

For all these reasons, Hainan’s maritime militia—both the bulk of its forces overall and the elite vanguard units probed deeply in this series—will remain a key component of China’s statecraft and security efforts the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force, with its leading units celebrated as models for others to emulate.

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

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.

Featured Image: February 2017: Head of the Lingshui County PAFD Colonel Xing Jincheng, in plain clothes, speaks to the maritime militia under his command (CCTV News).