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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.

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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

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.

Distributed Lethality: China is Doing it Right

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Alan Cummings

Distributed lethality is about “increasing individual warship lethality and then combining surface warships in innovative ways.” We can add some 21st Century flair to the details, but the premise remains the essence of warships since time immemorial: go to sea and kill your enemy. Frankly, the U.S. Navy’s (USN’s) surface fleet is playing catch-up after the post-Cold War/ low-naval-threats era of the 1990s and 2000s. The fact that we needed to verify the value of capable warships with “a rigorous program of analytics” and numerous war games seems a poignant expression of the tactical and bureaucratic disconnect in the past decades. So for now, check out China and the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) if you want an example of Distributed Lethality in action.

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The PLA(N) began building modern warships in the 1990s when they laid the keels for their first Luhu, Luhai, and Jiangwei-class vessels. Those vessels and every class of surface combatant since have counted anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) as their primary armament. Which is to say they were each deadly in the anti-surface warfare (ASuW) arena from day one. Ironically, as China was ramping up production of lethal surface combatants, the U.S. was ramping down. The last Arleigh Burke to incorporate the RGM-84 HARPOON (USS Porter, DDG 78) slid off the blocks in 1997 and every U.S. destroyer built since has been oriented around air defense. What little ASuW capability these later destroyers have is reliant on firing an SM-2 missile designed for air warfare in a secondary ASuW mode.

Fast forward to 2015, and you have two comparisons of the USN and PLA(N)- first by tonnage, then by strike-mile lethality.

Chart 1
USN vs PLA(N) Surface Combatants by Tonnage
USN vs PLA(N) Surface Combatants by ASuW Strike-Mile

As you can see, the USN may have the edge in tonnage but the PLA(N) takes the prize for lethality. It turns out the PLA(N) also has more hulls- which means their tonnage and armament are more, wait for it, distributed.  Granted, a lot of that distribution resides in their Houbei PTGs. But if you’re focused on regional sea control, say like the South China Sea and Western Pacific, then those low-cost/high-lethality combatants are the perfect thing to disperse across contested locations, key transit areas, and chokepoints.

Today’s bottom line is that the PLA(N) can field more ASCMs and a wider variety of platforms than the USN. For most of the PLA(N), that lethality comes in the form of a warship with at least four YJ-83s, each delivering a 419-lbs warhead up to 100NM (some vessels have ASCMs with even longer ranges, like the YJ-18 and YJ-62). This means combatants with YJ-83s can hold a 200NM-diameter circle (or 31,400NM2) at risk of lethal effects. The Spratly Islands for example claim 120,000NM2; strategic distribution of a four-ship PLA(N) surface action group (SAG) gives ASCM coverage to 125,600NM2.  Raising the hull count or employing multiple SAGs makes the situation all the more frightening. Cue these vessels with rough targeting data (a.k.a. maritime domain awareness) from a Fiery Cross-based patrol aircraft and the PLA(N) has a full-blown system of distributed lethality.

Holding short of a war at sea, PLA(N) combatants are the muscle behind China’s maritime presence and influence operations. PLA General Zhang Zhaozhong implied this in early 2013, calling it a “cabbage strategy” to surround contested maritime claims (like Second Thomas Shoal) with layers of civilian, government, and military vessels. Then in 2014, PLA(N) vessels helped escort the Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling rig in 2014 despite Chinese statements to the contrary. Talk about “combining surface warships in innovative ways,” China is using them as part of a layered politico-military offense to advance their maritime claims, one that easily transitions to combat operations if things deteriorate.

Implementing distributed lethality requires sound doctrine and a practiced C2 structure. That’s where the USN carries the advantage (for now) while we implement expedients like the modified TLAM and SM-6. However, much of our doctrine is either available via open source research or may have been compromised by cyber warfare. For example, the majority of our own textbook on “Surface Tactics 101” is available via a quick Google search for MTP-1D (the Multinational Maritime Tactical Signal and Maneuvering Book). Paired with the equally available NWP 3-56 Composite Warfare Doctrine, and five minutes of Google research has provided the fundamentals of distributed tactics.

Whether the PLA(N) has incorporated U.S. C2 doctrine or developed a native system is likely hidden in classified reporting. However, we can look at broader open source examples to evaluate how practiced they are at operating warships together. For instance, rehearsals of combat resupply demonstrate coordination amongst combatants and the entire logistics train. Recent exercises with Russia, Australia, and the U.S.  illustrate that the PLA(N) has become a capable partner for live fire exercises, amphibious landings, and maneuvering drills amongst other evolutions. I was once told that the key to combat at sea is showing up to the right location, on time, with weapons and radios that work (which may have been borrowed from someone else). I believe that is a valid definition, particularly in the context of distributed lethality, and one that the PLA(N) appears to be meeting.

If one is inclined to dismiss exercises and drills as liable to heavy scripting, then the PLA(N)’s blue water deployments show their C2 abilities are no fluke. These complicated operations (and the C2 required for them) are one snapshot in an evolution of PLA(N) doctrine that runs concurrent with their progress in warship technology. Even the larger Chinese defense organization is adapting to facilitate coordinated operations. Two of the five newly inaugurated theater commands will likely be tasked with maritime-centric missions in the East and South China Seas. More important than today’s snapshot, these trends indicate where China wants to take their C2 ability tomorrow. So what do these strategic moves mean for distributed ltactics? If China has the C2 infrastructure, logistics support, and trust in its commanders to operate independently around the world then it stands to reason they can operate together in China’s near abroad.

Which brings up my last point on distributed lethality in the PLA(N): they win by implementing it locally. Warships from China’s East Sea Fleet at Ningbo need to cover 400NM to be in the disputed Senkaku Islands, while South Sea Fleet ships from Zhanjiang are 700NM from the Spratly Islands. PLA(N) vessels can cycle through combat patrols, maintenance periods, training evolutions, and resupply hops in 1/3 the distance a U.S. destroyer covers transiting from San Diego to Hawaii. Meanwhile, the USN still needs the missiles, variety of hulls (small, medium, and large combatants), and regional partners to make distributed lethality work in the Asia Pacific. China need only cast off lines.

Tactics come down to your ability to shoot, move, and communicate. Most of the USN surface fleet can move and communicate around the world, but can’t authoritatively prosecute a surface engagement. The PLA(N) is working on the skills to communicate in a coordinated attack, but they can move with ease in their near seas and they designed their surface combatants as shooters from the beginning. Both sides have identified where they are and where they want to go as far as tactical capability (which, for good or ill, seems to be similar places). So which challenge is easier- learning C2, or refitting and retraining a fleet? I guess the race is on.

Alan Cummings commissioned from Jacksonville University in 2007 and served as a Surface Warfare Officer in the USN until 2013. The opinions here are his own and do not represent the position of the U.S. government. Some material used here is drawn from research being considered for publication elsewhere. Original data is available via valid requests submitted to nextwar@cimsec.org.

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Irregular Forces at Sea: Not “Merely Fishermen”—Shedding Light on China’s Maritime Militia

By Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy

Maritime militia, dead ahead! In a just-published Defense News article, Chris Cavas has made an important contribution to our understanding of the operations and applications of China’s irregular maritime forces. The forces he describes are almost certainly neither ordinary merchant ship operators nor random fishermen, but rather militiamen operating in pre-planned roles in conjunction with USS Lassen’s Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea (SCS) on 27 October 2015.

Cavas cites a U.S. Navy source: “‘There were Chinese merchant vessels present that were not as demure as the Chinese Navy. One came out of its anchorage in the island and crossed the destroyer’s bow but at a safe distance, and the Lassen did not alter course as the merchant ship circled around.’ Fishing vessels in the area added to shipping traffic in the immediate area, the source said, but the ship did not have to maneuver around them. But the extra craft seem to have been present, the source noted, ‘because they anticipated the Lassen’s transit.’”

In what follows, the authors trace maritime militia involvement—in close coordination with other Chinese maritime forces—to a variety of important incidents at sea. It is thus not surprising to see these forces active near such China-occupied Spratly features as Subi Reef. But greater awareness is needed to address this vital but too-long-understudied issue. To that end, we offer the following major points:

  • China’s maritime militia is understudied, but it is important for understanding Beijing’s maritime strategy, especially in the SCS.
  • The militia work with other instruments of Chinese sea power—the military and the coast guard—to defend and advance China’s position in its disputes. They may also support military operations in wartime.
  • They allow China to vigorously pursue objectives without risking military conflict or creating an image of gunboat diplomacy.
  • This article series will profile four of the most important militia units operating in the SCS.

While Russia has employed “Little Green Men” surreptitiously in Crimea, China uses its own “Little Blue Men” to support its outstanding island and maritime claims in the East and South China seas. These maritime militia forces have participated in some of Beijing’s most important military and paramilitary operations in the SCS. They will be directly involved in future Chinese efforts, possibly including the direct harassment of U.S. and allied FONOPS. By “sending civilian, rather than military, ships to track or confront U.S. Navy vessels,” explains Huang Jing of the National University of Singapore, “China can issue a firm response to the U.S. while signaling that they don’t want to escalate the situation militarily.”

No ordinary civilian fishing boats, these! They are operated by members of China’s maritime militia (海上民兵). These irregular forces are recruited from a local fishing community or other maritime industry and remain employed there while being trained and available for government tasking. China’s modern maritime militia building dates to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, when a rudimentary People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) faced Nationalist blockading of mainland ports and depredations against merchant vessels. As a stopgap measure, the nascent PRC trained and equipped its fishermen militias, both for their self-defense and to support ground and naval operations. Within today’s maritime militia, a small but growing set of elite units are the ones most likely to be deployed on more sophisticated operations that involve monitoring, displaying presence in front of, or opposing foreign actors. They frequently operate in concert with China’s navy and coast guard.

The PLA’s official newspaper states, “putting on camouflage they qualify as soldiers, taking off the camouflage they become law abiding fishermen.” Make no mistake: when national needs dictate, maritime militia are used as frontmen trolling in support of territorial claims. You can read our analysis to date here, here, here, and here. Now, with the potential role and impact of China’s maritime militia growing, it’s time to document their precise nature before Beijing is able to mischaracterize or selectively portray an interaction or incident as simply involving random civilian fishermen or other marine workers motivated by spontaneous patriotism unfairly oppressed by foreign forces.

The concept of deputizing civilians to perform state functions is not novel to China. The United States, for instance, has Naval Militia, as well as Coast Guard Auxiliary and a Craft of Opportunity Program—but they serve vastly different purposes. Many states’ naval militias, such as the Rhode Island Naval Militia, are not currently active. Only the New York Naval Militia has remained continuously active since its founding. The few that have remained active post-World War II or recently (re)activated assist with law enforcement, evacuations, disaster recovery, anti-terrorism, and defense of undisputed American territory and port facilities against mines and other hazards. Importantly, U.S. Naval Militias, like the U.S. Coast Guard, do not harass foreign vessels or conduct other assertive activities to further contested island or maritime claims. In fact, the United States has very few contested claims, and has a track record of adhering to international law to manage or resolve them. It does not resort to harassment or threats of force against foreign vessels regarding disputes; hence there is no need for its Naval Militias to do so.

By contrast, such “maritime rights protection” activities are important responsibilities for China’s leading irregular maritime forces. Selected elite Maritime Militia units prepare for the most advanced missions, in part by receiving training from the PLA Navy (PLAN). As the first article in our series will explain, Vietnam, one of the few other countries with a Maritime Militia similar to China’s in purpose, knows about their efforts only too well. Chinese maritime militia capabilities are poised to grow still further as Beijing’s desire for calibrated SCS operations grows and demobilized military forces may be offered as a result of Xi Jinping’s 300,000-troop downsizing to make the PLA, literally, leaner and meaner.

To challenge future U.S. and allied FONOPS, in addition to verbal challenges and conspicuous monitoring and tracking, Beijing will attempt to further portray itself as the victim of foreign predations, forced to respond “defensively.” In addition to close, ambiguous approaches by China coast guard vessels or aircraft, which—unlike naval warships—are not subject to the bilaterally-accepted Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) or the associated air annex, it may entail closer, even more ambiguous approaches by maritime militia forces. The vast majority would likely operate trawlers, but some may employ other marine economic assets as well, such as the “merchant vessel” that cut in front of USS Lassen. Beijing may attempt to mischaracterize or selectively portray an interaction or incident as simply involving random civilian fishermen or other marine workers and “island residents” unfairly oppressed by foreign forces motivated by spontaneous patriotism—when in fact these are irregular selectively-uniform-wearing forces controlled by the PLA through land-based military People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFDs). It will also require proactivity and getting out ahead of Beijing’s narrative. Among other things, the U.S. government should document to the world the nature of China’s maritime milita and its government-controlled deception and harassment activities. That will be far easier and more effective before Beijing orchestrates any militia-related confrontation.

To better understand these important dynamics and their strategic, operational, tactical, and policy implications, the authors will therefore offer a series of five articles on the vanguard militia forces of Hainan Province, most relevant to SCS disputes. Four of the leading militias will be surveyed in depth.

  • Located on Hainan’s west coast, the Danzhou Militia of Baimajing Harbor played a significant role in China’s operation to seize the Crescent Group of islands from Vietnam in the January 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands.
  • Established in 1985, the Tanmen Village Maritime Militia Company of Qionghai County on Hainan’s south-southeast coast has long delivered supplies and building materials to China’s Spratly outposts. It was directly involved in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff, with the boats of Chen Zebo and another Squad Leader likely summoning Chinese coast guard intervention when boarded by Philippine Navy forces seeking to confiscate a diverse harvest of endangered marine species. The Tanmen Militia benefited greatly from a visit by Xi himself on 8 April 2013, after which Tanmen Village was declared a model village and received further government investment.
  • Learning from the model set forth by the Tanmen Militia, the Sansha City Maritime Militia was established in its new, eponymous municipality in 2013. Given its location, it promises to play an important role in future Paracel affairs.
  • Last but not least, based in Sanya City near the center of Hainan’s southern coast, is the Sanya maritime militia built out of entities like Fugang Fishery Co. Ltd., which was established in 2001. Given its status as the militia perhaps most likely to be used for near-term frontline operations, such as harassment against U.S. or allied FONOPS, it is the subject of this first article in our series.

Read Part One Here.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor 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.