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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

Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

This series on the leading maritime militias of Hainan Province began by examining the “rights protection” efforts of Sanya City’s maritime militia, whose exploits have given them a prominent position among the province’s irregular sea forces. Discussions about the Sanya City maritime militia are still ongoing as we watch their development. Next came our evaluation of the historical legacy of Danzhou’s maritime militia, which directly demonstrated the value of irregular forces in naval warfare during the 1974 Paracels Sea Battle. This third installment in the series is part one of a two-part in-depth look at the maritime militia of Tanmen.

Tanmen Fishing Harbor is a small fishing port on the eastern shore of Hainan Island. It is home to one of China’s best-known maritime militia units, the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company (潭门海上民兵连). This irregular force receives disproportionate media coverage stemming largely from its involvement in numerous incidents with foreign actors at sea, most notably the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Philippines. Since its founding in 1985, Tanmen has received numerous accolades as an “advanced militia unit” from the government and military on all levels. Tanmen’s fame spread further after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile visit on the first anniversary of the incident. Xi encouraged Tanmen’s maritime militia to build larger vessels, collect information in distant waters, master modern equipment, and support “island and reef” development. The extent of Chinese attention to this fishing village merits a deep-dive analysis to determine what is happening on the ground there, and what kind of maritime militia capabilities are resulting.

Some of Tanmen’s importance to the PRC stems from the wealth of historical artifacts and other evidence China possesses that allegedly support claims that Tanmen fishermen were the earliest community to discover and sustain continuous exploitation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Numerous reports of Tanmen fishermen having been detained or attacked by foreign states also support a growing Chinese narrative of the victimization of Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea. This narrative justifies enhanced ‘defensive’ activities by Chinese maritime forces operating there. Contributions from fishing communities such as Tanmen’s to China’s overall posture in the South China Sea bolsters domestic Chinese rationale for regaining lost “blue territory” (蓝色国土) and “maritime rights and interests” (海洋权益). Tanmen Village is likewise the future site of China’s South China Sea Museum and the South China Sea Base for the State Administration of Cultural Heritage’s Undersea Cultural Heritage Protection Center. Both institutions will likely be dedicated to bolstering China’s historical evidence to support its claims of sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and resource rights in those waters. The latter also has a stated purpose of “promoting maritime industries, shoreline protection and development, utilization and conservation of marine resources, marine service systems, and the implementation of the overall national marine economic development strategy.”  

Central to furthering these interests are irregular units including the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company. Its history exhibit, located in its headquarters, houses artifacts documenting historical presence in the South China Sea by the forefathers of present-day militia members. These include navigation logs, compasses, and diving gear. Tanmen’s maritime militia activities began well before the present company’s official establishment in 1985. Previously a more loosely-organized fishermen militia, it became an official militia company when the PRC promulgated new guidelines for developing fisheries in distant waters and opened up the oceanic fishing industry to privatization. A contingent from this new organization was led initially by its first commander, Huang Xunmian, to the Spratlys, thereby becoming the first organized Tanmen fleet for Spratly development. Huang became a major part of the militia movement to mobilize Tanmen fishermen to build bigger vessels and venture to the Spratlys. By the early 1990s, the company included 150 militiamen and 21 vessels. Today it continues to expand under the current political agenda of transforming China into a “maritime power.”

Chinese media coverage of Tanmen fishermen often states that a large portion of incidents in the South China Sea between Chinese fishermen and foreign states is attributable to the Tanmen fishermen and maritime militia, whose members resolutely oppose “foreign encroachment.” The deputy station chief of the Qionghai City Fisheries Management Station told reporters in 2012 that 90% of the Chinese fishing vessels visiting the Paracels and Spratlys are from Tanmen Harbor, the remainder from Sanya City (also in Hainan Province) or Guangdong Province. While that particular claim is difficult to verify, the number of tense encounters between Tanmen fishermen and militia and the maritime forces of other South China Sea states—particularly the Philippines—certainly helps illustrate the point. Below is a brief, non-exhaustive list of events within the past three decades involving Tanmen fishing vessels, documenting their constant presence and activities in disputed waters and the resulting encounters, and periodic altercations, with other claimant states’ maritime forces. Of note, the incidents listed are as reported in the Chinese press.  Instances of provocations by Tanmen fishermen or Chinese law enforcement vessels are therefore not included.

Timeline: Incidents and Other Events involving Tanmen Fishermen/Maritime Militia

Based on accumulated reports on Tanmen fishing vessels, the below list is by no means complete. Chinese media often reports that hundreds of incidents have occurred.

1985, August – First Tanmen maritime militia trip to Spratlys

After the founding of the militia company in August 1985 and the relaxing of China’s fisheries policies, company leader Huang Xunmian (黄循绵) led a group of 100 fishermen on five fishing vessels on their first trip to the Spratlys.

1989, 13 April – Near Philippine-occupied Thitu Island (中业岛):

Fishing vessel Qionghai 00224 and three fishermen—Huang Changbiao (黄昌标), Yu Yeyou (郁业友), and Yu Yexuan (郁业轩)—are arrested by Philippine authorities.

1989-95 – Chinese-occupied Spratly features:

A number of Tanmen maritime militia work in coordination with the PLA over the years on multiple-month trips to erect the first generation of structures on Chinese-occupied Spratly features. These included stilted shacks, sovereignty markers, piers, and helipads.

1993  Somewhere in the Spratlys:

Qionghai 00417 is attacked by non-uniformed armed men, resulting in the deaths of four Tanmen fishermen. Tanmen fisherman Hu Xingliang (胡兴良) reported that they were speaking Tagalog, the language of the Phillipines.

1995, 25 March – Mischief Reef (美济礁):

Four of the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company’s fishing vessels with 62 fishermen aboard, working near Mischief Reef, are arrested by Philippine authorities. Platoon leader Wang Qiongfa (王琼法) and four other militia members maintain group solidarity despite strong Philippine attempts to coerce confessions from the Chinese fishermen to violating Philippine waters.

1998, 11 January – Scarborough Shoal (黄岩岛):

Tanmen Maritime Militia squad leader Chen Zebo (陈则波), captain of Qionghai 00372, and Tanmen fishing vessel Qionghai 00473 and its captain Chen Yiping (陈奕平) (altogether 22 fishermen) are arrested by the Philippine Navy for poaching, sent to Subic Bay Coast Guard Station, and held there for 5-6 months.

1998, March – Scarborough Shoal:

Trawlers Zhongyuanyu (中远渔) 313 and 311, and their ~29 fishermen, are detained by a Philippine naval patrol for possession of explosives and endangered coral.

1999 May – Scarborough Shoal:

Chen Zebo’s ship is rammed and sunk by the Philippine Navy, sending 11 crewmembers into the water. Chen and two others are picked up and sent to jail, subsequently released in July.

2000, 26 May – Off the coast of Palawan:

Tanmen fishing vessel Qionghai 01068 encounters a Philippine Coast Guard Vessel. Philippine Coast Guard fires on Qionghai 01068, killing captain Fu Gongwu (符功武); and detains the rest of the crew.

2001 – Near Thitu Island:

Captain Feng Xinyi (冯信义) and three other fishermen aboard Qionghai 00389 are arrested by Philippine authorities.

2002 – Scarborough Shoal:

Qionghai 09016’s owner Lu Haichuan (卢海川) and the 22 fishermen aboard were arrested by Philippine authorities and jailed for 8 months in Palawan.

2006, April – South Shoal (南方浅滩):

Chen Zebo’s nephew Chen Yichao (陈奕超) was on Qionghai 03012 in the Spratlys at South Shoal when on 26 April 2006 an armed vessel of unknown origin attacked and killed four fishermen and injured 3 more.

2007, August – Second Thomas Shoal (仁爱礁):

Qionghai 01039, operated by Mo Taifu (莫太福), was pursued and fired upon by Philippine authorities.

2007, September – Somewhere in the Spratlys:

Qionghai 01038, owned by Mo Taifu, was intercepted and inspected by Malaysian authorities.

2012, 10 April – Scarborough Shoal Standoff:

12 Tanmen fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal encounter Philippine Naval Vessel Gregorio Del Pilar. Six fishing vessels were outside the lagoon at the time, including that of Tanmen Maritime Militia Company Deputy Commander Wang Shumao (王书茂), who led an unsuccessful effort to block Philippine fishing vessels from approaching the shoal.

The other six fishing vessels present inside the lagoon, two of which are confirmed maritime militia vessels, were trapped when Philippine forces blocked the lagoon’s opening. These boats were subsequently boarded by Philippine troops:

  • Qionghai 03026 – One of two boats present under the direct command of Tanmen Militia Squad Leader Chen Zebo. Returned to Scarborough Shoal after initial standoff.
  • Qionghai 09099 – Under direct command of Tanmen Militia Squad Leader Xu Detan (许德谭). Returned to Scarborough Shoal after initial standoff.
  • Qionghai 02096 – Owned by Yu Ning (郁宁), Captain is Li Chengduan (李成端), Yu reported the incident to the Tanmen Border Defense Station.
  • Qionghai 03065 – Owned by Zhao Xuxian (赵绪贤); Zhao Shisong (赵市松) is captain. Returned to Scarborough Shoal after initial standoff.
  • Qionghai 05668 – A 300-ton vessel owned by Fu Mingyan (符名燕), its captain is Li Qiongmei (李琼美). Ship had 16 crewmen, 12 conducting underwater clam harvest. Returned to Scarborough Shoal after initial standoff. Qionghai 03889 – Captain is Chen Yiping (陈奕平), (also detained in 1998). Returned to Scarborough Shoal after initial standoff.

2012, May – Triton Island (中建岛):

Possible maritime militia vessel Qionghai 02067 is hired to carry “official” engineering surveyors and stone boundary markers to Triton Island. Media coverage states that crew members were skittish during the Chinese journalist’s inquiry.

2014 Spring – Half-Moon Shoal (半月礁):

Chen Zebo’s older brother Chen Zelong (陈则龙) encounters Philippine authorities.

2014, 6 May – Half-moon Shoal:

Two Tanmen fishing vessels are caught by Philippine personnel poaching endangered turtles near Half Moon Shoal on 6 May 2014. One of the fishing vessels, Qionghai 03168, escaped; Qionghai 09063 and 11 fishermen are detained by Philippine coast guardsmen reportedly disguised as fishermen. Orders were sent 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 recalled from its task of blockading Second Thomas Shoal to assist with the search.

While numerous open sources confirm the Tanmen Maritime Militia clearly exists and operates in the South China Sea, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which of Tanmen’s fishing vessels are part of the militia and which are not. One incident on 25 May 2000, wherein a Tanmen fishing boat captain was shot and killed, yielded contradictory Chinese and Filipino narratives. Tanmen fishing vessel Qionghai 01068 was operating off the coast of Palawan when it encountered a Philippine Coast Guard Vessel. Chinese news coverage portrays Philippine thugs firing upon hapless Tanmen fishermen who drifted into Philippine waters after suffering engine failure. Philippine sources, however, assert that the Chinese fishermen were poaching inside Philippine waters (reported coordinates here) and catching endangered turtle species, an activity for which Tanmen fishermen are well-known. The fishing boat fled as the Philippine Coast Guard vessel approached. When the coast guard vessel fired warning shots to halt them, the fishermen reportedly fired back, sparking a firefight. With the captain dead at the helm, Qionghai 01068 came to a stop. Philippine police suspect the fishermen tossed their weapons into the water before the coast guard boarded. Previously-documented activities by the maritime militia in Tanmen and other areas of Hainan Province suggests that Chinese reports tend to omit important details to present an image of defensive victimization. Such discrepancies make it difficult for observers to separate truth from fiction as each claimant pursues its own interests in making its statements. This article’s scope primarily covers Chinese source materials on Tanmen Township (潭门镇)’s maritime militia; contradicting reports from other South China Sea claimant states merit further comparative research.

Ambiguity surrounding the identity of fishermen-based militia is a veil of protection often exploited by the PRC as it advances its maritime claims in the South China Sea. Even with proof of a boat’s connection to the militia, that force’s part-time nature means that most of the time personnel are non-uniformed and engaged in economic production. Nevertheless, domestic Chinese-language sources sometimes reveal the true identity of the maritime militia, clarifying a fishing vessel’s background. However, as the 10 April 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident makes clear, even when Tanmen fishing vessels may be operating for private gain, they can be quickly transformed into instruments of state policy when the situation calls for it.

The Scarborough Shoal event was the Tanmen militia’s most notable recent encounter and was likely the impetus behind President Xi Jinping’s widely reported visit to the unit. As outlined in the timeline above, twelve Tanmen fishing boats were operating at Scarborough Shoal, six inside the lagoon. The six were boarded by sailors from Philippine Navy vessel BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, who inspected their catches and took photographs. It also appears that Philippine forces’ protocol upon boarding a Chinese fishing vessel is to shut off the vessel’s communications equipment, including the Beidou satellite navigation terminal, as they did upon boarding Qionghai 09063 on 6 May 2014. Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) forces have difficulty interfering in Philippine inspections and arrests of fishermen if they cannot use the Beidou’s transmitter to locate the boarded vessel. Fortunately for Tanmen’s fishermen caught in the Scarborough Shoal lagoon, before Philippine sailors could stop him, Yu Ning (郁宁), owner of Qionghai 02096, was able to transmit several short messages to the phone of Fu Shibao (符史宝), the attendant at the Tanmen Village Border Defense Control Station’s command office. He did so by using the Beidou message transmission service, which can send messages directly to Fu’s phone. Upon receiving the messages “Philippine naval vessel No. 15 inbound,” Fu and his superior verified the reported vessel as the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar. Yu’s final message, “They are boarding,” prompted Fu to rapidly elevate the report to MLE authorities. China Maritime Surveillance ships CMS 75 and CMS 84 were dispatched to the shoal to intervene, arriving that afternoon. China Fisheries Law Enforcement ship YZ 303 left its mission at Mischief Reef to go full steam to Scarborough Shoal, arriving on 11 April. Fisheries cutter YZ 310 also left Guangzhou harbor on 18 April to arrive at Scarborough Shoal on the 20th

A report on the Qionghai City Government website features a profile of the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company Deputy Commander Wang Shumao (王书茂). It contains a description of his actions to support the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident. It appears that he was in command of the twelve Tanmen fishing vessels present during the incident, as he led an effort outside of the shoal to block any Philippine fishing vessels from entering the area. The article states that those Philippine fishing vessels were attempting to cross China’s “sea area defense line” (海域防护线), and that other Chinese fishing vessels in the area stopped fishing and joined in the rights protection force. The struggle continued until the 14th, when the remaining fishing vessels left the lagoon under escort by the law enforcement vessels. Some of the fishing vessels returned to Tanmen Harbor, while others continued on to operate in the Paracels.

However, just days after leaving the shoal, some of the Tanmen fishing vessels received notice from the Tanmen Fisheries Law Enforcement Department that it was again safe to operate at Scarborough Shoal. Having sustained economic losses from the incident, several of the Tanmen fishing vessels that had left quickly made the 500-mile journey to fish again at the shoal. This includes Qionghai 09099 and Qionghai 03026, whose captains are maritime militia squad leaders. That the identities of the fishermen are confirmed as maritime militia squad leaders who had been present inside the lagoon during the Scarborough Shoal Standoff and the militia company’s deputy commander operating outside the lagoon suggests that the Tanmen fishing vessels present at the shoal at some point became state-sponsored forces for China’s rights protection action at Scarborough Shoal. Additionally, under orders from shore command, Fisheries Law Enforcement vessel YZ 310 shared its own fuel with the fishing vessels for the stated purpose of maintaining their presence at Scarborough Shoal. By 25 April, eight Tanmen fishing vessels had returned to Scarborough Shoal. It is unclear whether the other vessels that returned, such as Qionghai 03065 and Qionghai 05668, are members of the Tanmen Maritime Militia. Balancing profitability and risk are normal considerations for regular fishermen. However, the tense incident at Scarborough Shoal, and the fact that these same fishermen were boarded days earlier at that shoal by armed commandos from the flagship of the Philippine Navy, renders unlikely the proposition of the Tanmen fishermen returning to the shoal out of concerns for economic profit.

11 April 2012: Fishing vessel Qionghai 09099, a confirmed maritime militia vessel operated by squad leader Xu Detan (center-front) and present at the Scarborough Shoal Standoff, is shown here detained by Philippine authorities for poaching giant clams.
11 April 2012: Fishing vessel Qionghai 09099, a confirmed maritime militia vessel operated by squad leader Xu Detan (center-front) and present at the Scarborough Shoal Standoff, is shown here detained by Philippine authorities for poaching giant clams.

One report from the Qionghai City Development Research Association covered an event held to commemorate the Tanmen fishermen’s contribution to “rights protection” at Scarborough Shoal. In attendance were Qionghai City’s officials and ten “fishermen representatives.” The report states that after the standoff began at Scarborough Shoal, Tanmen Township dispatched 25 fishing vessels in four groups to the shoal in response to a request from “higher national authorities.” Coverage of the event cited their bravery and obedience to commands while executing their mission to fish at Scarborough Shoal during the incident. Qionghai City officials then awarded the ten representatives with “consolation money” (慰问金), presumably meant to reimburse them for the costs of conducting their rights protection mission. It is thus clear that Tanmen fishermen were mobilized, possibly by central government authorities, to support China’s rights protection action at Scarborough Shoal.

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23 August 2012: Qionghai City leaders hold an award ceremony for “fishermen representatives” who participated in the rights protection action at Scarborough Shoal. Banner reads “Consolation Forum by Qionghai City Government for Fishermen that went to Huangyan Dao (Scarborough Shoal) for Rights Protection.” Tanmen “fishermen representatives” received “consolation money” for executing the missions assigned to them during the Scarborough Shoal Incident in April 2012.

Political Pilgrimage Begins…

The successful role of the Tanmen Militia in the Scarborough Shoal Incident resulted in visits by numerous delegations to Tanmen, where militia representatives urged others to emulate their example or to learn from their experiences. Some of this attention advances local economic development, but a greater focus is in the stated objective of protecting China’s sovereign rights and supporting “island” construction in the South China Sea. Although some visits predated Xi Jinping’s, it was his visit in 2013 that put Tanmen’s irregular sea forces on the national map.  

Xi Jinping’s visit to the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company was a symbolic gesture that catalyzed growth in maritime militia work nationwide. In the fashion of many Chinese political-economic endeavors, a model unit and locality were selected for all others to learn from and to emulate. The only thing needed was Xi’s stamp of approval to make it official.

Hainan Provincial Party Secretary Luo Baoming and Deputy Party Secretary Li Xiansheng helped lay the foundation for Hainan’s maritime militia construction. Luo visited Tanmen Township on 6 December 2012 and Li on 8 March 2013. Luo spoke with the community about the content of decisions by the CPC’s Eighteenth National Congress, explaining how China’s goals to develop marine resources, protect maritime sovereignty, and become a maritime power were good news for Tanmen’s development. The visits also likely helped prepare townspeople for the political movement about to unfold around them.

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10 April 2013: Chinese President Xi Jinping made a special trip to Tanmen fishing harbor during his tour of Hainan Province. This photo shows him inspecting the Tanmen maritime militia. Behind Xi is Hainan Province Deputy Secretary Li Xiansheng, head of the Hainan leading small group tasked with overseeing construction of maritime militia forces, vessels, equipment, infrastructure, and training.

In the aftermath of Xi’s visit, numerous delegations from other areas of the province made trips to Tanmen’s fishing harbor to learn from the “model work unit.” Most delegations held their ceremonial meetings aboard the same maritime militia vessel that Xi boarded, Qionghai 09045. The vessel’s captain, Platoon Leader Lu Chuan’an, appears to have assumed the role of maritime militia representative for the delegations. Below is a selective sampling of the delegations that visited Tanmen Township, ranging from Hainan’s local counties to national-level agencies:

  • 10 October 2012 – Delegation led by Guangzhou Military Region Deputy Chief of Staff.
  • 19 April 2013 – Delegation led by Party Secretary of Wanning City, Hainan Province.
  • 11 July 2013 – Delegation led by head of Hainan Province’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
  • 14 October 2013 – Representatives from Baoting County, Hainan Province.
  • 1 November 2013 – Delegation led by Party Secretary of Dongfang City, Hainan Province.
  • 15 November 2013 – Delegation led by Sansha City Mayor Xiao Jie. China’s newest city, built on Woody Island in the Paracels, this prefectural-level polity administers all PRC-occupied South China features ex-Hainan.
  • 25 March 2014 – Delegation from Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
  • 23 September 2014 – National People’s Congress Special Research Group led by Former Guangzhou Military Region Deputy Commander Lu Dingwen.
  • 17 October 2014 – Research group from Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
  • 26 March 2015 – Hainan Governor Liu Cigui; former director, State Oceanic Administration.
  • 16 April 2015 – Hainan Province, Lin Gao County Committee visit.
  • 3 August 2015 – Supervisory group from the National Ministry of Civil Affair’s Double-Support Office, dedicated to the PLA and governments’ mutual efforts to support each other, visits Tanmen and holds a conference in Qionghai.

Most news coverage of these visits showcases the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company as the “first stop.” Many photos in reports of the visit show delegation members visiting the maritime militia headquarters command’s sand table depicting South China Sea geomorphology with markers representing numerous features.

On 23 September 2014, for instance, former Guangzhou Military Region Deputy Commander Lü Dingwen (吕丁文) led a National People’s Congress Special Research Group to survey the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company. With the provincial deputy commander and Qionghai City officials in tow, the delegation followed the usual itinerary for all delegation visits to the Tanmen Maritime Militia. Afterward, it held a conference attended by Qionghai City and Tanmen Township officials, including officials from the City Oceanic and Fisheries Bureau, People’s Armed Forces Department, and fishermen and militia representatives. They discussed issues involving Tanmen fishermen’s income, fuel subsidies, medical insurance, and policy support. The Special Research Group then drafted a feasibility proposal and report for submission to their superiors in Beijing. It appears that Xi’s stamp of approval on Tanmen in particular, and the maritime militia generally, is resulting in research and possible future legislation efforts by the National People’s Congress. 

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23 September 2014: Former Guangzhou Military Region Deputy Commander Lü Dingwen inspecting the pilot house on one of the Tanmen Maritime Militia vessels.

The period after Xi’s visit saw Qionghai City and Tanmen Township transformed into a hotbed for new discussions on what role the militia should play in China’s effort to become a maritime power. In early 2014 Qionghai City hosted a symposium titled “Maritime Mobilization – 1312” held by the National Defense Mobilization Committee. Representatives from the province’s cities and counties came to discuss maritime militia construction, while units from other areas came to Tanmen Harbor for exercises.

With Xi’s having given the Tanmen Militia his stamp of approval as the model unit to emulate, previously influential but obscure grassroots-level figures, such as Deputy Commander Wang, Platoon Leader Lu Chuan’an, and Squad Leader Chen Zebo, will now feature prominently as exemplars in maritime militia work. Chen Zebo, in particular, has become famous for his aforementioned bravery against Philippine encroachments. He was first detained by Philippine authorities in 1998 when he was fishing at Scarborough Shoal, and reportedly held at Subic Bay for around 6 months. A year later his vessel was rammed and sunk by the Philippine navy, again at Scarborough Shoal. More than a decade later he became famous after he stood up to the Philippine authorities who boarded his boat at the start of the 2012 incident. Today, numerous Chinese news articles extol the Tanmen fishermen’s heroism, often profiling Chen Zebo as the archetype of the Tanmen Militia’s success.

This first part of the Tanmen Maritime Militia portion of our series examined the accumulated incidents and events that eventually put the Tanmen Militia on the radar of Chinese leaders, and its subsequent anointing as a model unit. The next installment in this continuing series on the leading irregular sea forces of Hainan Province (Tanmen Militia deep-dive, part two) will detail how the success of this company continued with its deployment to defend the HYSY 981 drilling rig in contested waters near Triton Island in the Paracels. It will also discuss the Tanmen Militia’s force structure, regulatory tensions, and the militia’s involvement in “island” building in the Spratlys.

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: Tanmen fishing vessel receiving supplies and fuel from YZ 310 during the Scarborough Shoal Incident. Source: NDD Daily.

Trailblazers in Warfighting: The Maritime Militia of Danzhou

Exhibit 1: Sendoff Ceremony for Danzhou’s Flotilla.

By Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy

This is the second article in a five-part series exploring Hainan Province’s maritime militia, an important but little-understood player in the South China Sea and participant in its ongoing disputes. Our first article covered the maritime militia of Sanya City on Hainan Island’s southern coast, China’s closest naval and geo-cultural analogue to Honolulu. Now we direct our focus to Hainan’s northwestern shore, home to Baimajing (白马井, lit. “White Horse Well”) Fishing Port in Danzhou Bay. If Sanya and its Fugang Fisheries Co., Ltd. can be considered a wellspring of recent frontline activities by irregular Chinese forces in the South China Sea, Danzhou and its succession of fisheries companies—the current incarnation being Hainan Provincial Marine Fishing Industry Group (海南省海洋渔业集团)—may be regarded as some of the pioneers of military applications for Chinese maritime militia use in recent decades. Examining Danzhou’s forces in detail thus offers a comprehensive window into the origins, contributions, and ongoing development of China’s maritime militia to help elucidate these irregular actors.

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

China’s maritime militia forces are responsible for both peacetime and wartime roles. Most recently, their peacetime mission has focused on the protection of China’s maritime rights and interests. Maritime militia charged with the peacetime mission of “rights protection” (维权) could engage in the simple flooding of disputed waters with Chinese vessels, resisting foreign vessels’ attempts to drive them away. During wartime, maritime militia detachments might provide logistic support to active duty forces, or even lay sea mines themselves.

In the decades following the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the maritime militia served important coastal patrol functions, providing regular sea monitoring during their normal operations, and preventing Nationalist agents from infiltrating the mainland. While recent examples of irregular forces such as the Sanya maritime militia performing rights protection actions are available for observers to study, the fortunate absence of any recent maritime conflict leaves their potential use during any actual future combat less clear. Open sources can nevertheless help elucidate this important yet understudied issue. The maritime militia’s current training program for wartime missions is well-documented. Further insights may be gleaned by studying its actions during a previous conflict and in particular during a naval battle, which should serve as useful sources of insight into how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) may undertake any future potential coordination with the maritime militia. This conflict is the PLA Navy’s employment of the South China Sea Fisheries Company’s maritime militia during the 1974 contest between China and South Vietnam (hereafter, “Vietnam”) over the Paracels.

Although the mission roles of the maritime militia have evolved since 1974, they still retain many wartime functions deemed important by Chinese leaders. Considering that both the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes are widely dispersed; and that some features are occupied by China’s weaker neighbors, with at least one maintaining a military alliance with Washington; any employment of the maritime militia in a limited Spratly conflagration could potentially resemble the 1974 conflict in important respects. Maritime militia activities could conceivably form a tripwire for confrontation that Chinese leaders might believe could confound American intervention, especially if the costs of intervening promised to damage U.S.-China relations significantly.

Danzhou Bay’s Baimajing Fishing Port holds a unique place in China’s recent history as the PLA’s first landing site during the Hainan Island Campaign (海南岛战役) in 1950. There, on 5 March, the PLA made the first of a series of landings that collectively allowed it to link up with the local guerilla resistance to achieve an overwhelming victory over Nationalist forces by 1 May and to expel surviving enemy soldiers completely from the island. Subsequently, Baimajing became home to the South China Sea Fisheries Company (南海水产公司). Established in Guangzhou, in neighboring Guangdong Province, it became one of the metropolis’s largest fishing companies before moving to Baimajing in 1958. In a sign of the interconnected nature of such enterprises, the South China Sea Fisheries Company still maintained operations in Guangzhou.

Two trawlers employed by the South China Sea Fisheries Company served in a variety of supporting roles for the PLA Navy during the January 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands (西沙海战). From the outset, the militia’s presence agitated the Vietnamese naval forces, and served to steal the initiative from them. Vietnamese destroyer commanders were preoccupied with determining how to deal with these trawlers without resorting to armed force, affording the PLA Navy time to coordinate its own forces. The militia was tasked with monitoring the Vietnamese flotilla, and rescue and repair of a badly damaged PLA Navy mine sweeper. After the PLA Navy repelled the Vietnamese flotilla, the two trawlers provided transportation for 500 troops—two companies and an amphibious reconnaissance team from the Hainan military district—onto the remaining Vietnamese-occupied features. The Vietnamese hold-outs on the islands were quickly overwhelmed and surrendered. While small in scale, the important supporting role these irregular forces played during a period of PLA Navy weakness helped China secure ground crucial to supporting its current maritime strategy in the South China Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gray Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at 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. 

China’s Daring Vanguard: Introducing Sanya City’s Maritime Militia

By Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy

The following is the first in a five-part series meant to shed light on Hainan Province’s maritime militia. For decades, these irregular forces have been an important element of Chinese maritime force structure and operations. Now, with Beijing increasing its capabilities, presence, and pushback against other nations’ activities, in the South China Sea (SCS), Hainan’s leading maritime militia elements are poised to become even more significant. Yet they remain widely under-appreciated and misunderstood by foreign observers. Read the introduction to the article series here, which offers a general background on China’s maritime militia and explains its growing importance.

Such lack of understanding is increasingly risky for U.S. policy-makers, planners, and military operators. This is particularly the case given recent, long-overdue American expression of determination to continue Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in accordance with international law near Chinese-occupied and -augmented features in the Spratlys. As demonstrated by apparent maritime militia operations in proximity to USS Lassen when it sailed near Subi Reef on 27 October 2015, Beijing may well see maritime militia as a tool with which to make FONOPS increasingly uncomfortable for U.S. forces while carefully calibrating its signaling and avoiding undue escalation.

To help rectify this knowledge gap, we begin by introducing and analyzing maritime militia based in strategically-situated Sanya City, one of Hainan’s greatest naval, fishing, and maritime economic hubs. Prominent among Sanya-based maritime militia is the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co., Ltd. (三亚福港渔业水产实业有限公司), founded in 2001. One of Sanya City’s major marine fisheries companies, Fugang Fisheries is composed primarily of Fujianese fishermen. A leading participant in both fishing expeditions to the Spratlys and harassment of foreign vessels there and elsewhere in the SCS, it has been celebrated for its bravery.

Indeed, among even the vanguard militia units profiled in this series, Fugang Fisheries is itself at the vanguard. That helps to explain why it has been entrusted with supporting so many Chinese operations, and involved in so many related international incidents, in the SCS. Fugang has dispatched its vessels and crews as maritime militia in service of China’s maritime security efforts in the SCS, primarily for “rights protection” (维权), efforts to advance and defend China’s island and maritime claims that are increasingly in tension with Beijing’s parallel objective of “maintaining stable relations” (维稳) with its immediate neighbors and the United States. Focusing on Sanya’s maritime militia, Fugang Fisheries first among them, thus offers disproportionate insights into an important element of Chinese maritime policy and activity with direct implications for U.S. interests, presence, and influence in the SCS.

Operations to Date

In recent years, maritime militia forces from Sanya, including Fugang Fisheries, have participated in several significant maritime incidents between China and the United States, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The location of these incidents, together with their respective distances from Sanya City, is depicted below.

Map Draft V3 (1)

Exhibit 1: Locations of Sanya City maritime militia operations in the South China Sea

Central Role in Impeccable Incident

On 8 March 2009, following several days of sporadic encounters, the ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable was surrounded by a group of five Chinese ships 75 miles (120 km) south of China’s Hainan Province in the SCS. The contingent included a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intelligence collection ship (AGI), a Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE) patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel, and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers. Close-in harassment by the trawlers ensued. China is one of a small minority of nations that insists it has the right to regulate foreign military operations and other activities it deems detrimental to its security in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). One of the trawlers involved, hull number F8399, belonged to Fugang Fisheries. The fishing trawlers, although dwarfed by the Impeccable, were successful in disrupting the normal operations of the U.S. vessel. Lin Wei (林魏), owner of the company’s largest ship, is reported to have piloted trawler F8399 during the Impeccable Incident, facing down the U.S. crew and its use of water hoses. Lin and his crew’s actions made them famous amongst the fishing communities when they returned to Sanya harbor.

Videos of the Impeccable Incident may be viewed here.

Exhibit 2: Trawler F8399 attempting to grapple USNS Impeccable’s towed array cable in March 2009

Five years later, trawler F8399 was lost to a fire in late April 2014, catching ablaze while in harbor. Although F8399 was a noteworthy trawler, its loss is a drop in the sea amongst the numerous trawlers available in Sanya. This is particularly true as Hainan supports programs to replace old hulls with newer, more capable trawlers well equipped to travel to, and operate around, the Spratlys. As will now be explained, while trawler F8399’s owner Lin Wei lost one ship, he has gained another one that is far larger and more capable.

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Exhibit 3: Vessel F8399 subsequently succumbed to a shipboard fire in late April 2014

Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co. has developed the ability to conduct fishing expeditions to the Spratlys, a journey of over 600 nautical miles (1111 km). Central to these efforts is its 2011 construction of F8168, a 3,000-ton fisheries supply ship owned by Lin Wei that doubles as a command ship for Sanya fishing fleets heading to the Spratlys. In July 2012, command and supply ship F8168 led a fleet of 29 trawlers and 316 fishermen on an 18-day expedition to the Spratlys, covering 1,756 nautical miles (3,252 km). Organized into two formations with three sub-groups each, the fleet operated around Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs, taking shelter from an approaching typhoon inside Mischief Reef’s lagoon. A dockside welcoming ceremony was held upon the flotilla’s return to Sanya Harbor, attended by Provincial Department of Ocean and Fisheries Director Zhao Zhongshe and Sanya City Mayor Wang Yong. The event celebrated the success of Fugang Fisheries’ efforts to combine with two of Sanya’s fishing collectives into one large fleet. Officials lauded the fleet’s ability to increase both the safety and the scale of operations thanks to command and supply ship F8168’s providing the rest of the fleet with fresh water, fuel, and ice; and purchasing and storing trawler catches on-site. During one of the fleet’s more recent voyages to the SCS, it conducted fishing operations in the Spratlys for more than 40 days, demonstrating improved ability to sustain continuous fisheries production and longer-term presence in disputed waters.

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Exhibit 4: F8168 returning with 29 trawlers from the Spratly fishing grounds in July 2012

Accompanying the Fugang Fisheries-led fleet’s pioneering July 2012 voyage was the electronically-sophisticated Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE) Cutter YZ 310 (also known as 渔政310, or FLEC 310), the same ship that confronted the Philippine Navy at Scarborough Shoal just a few months earlier. As Ryan Martinson of the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute explains, “Despite their many pressing missions, the national-level Fisheries Law Enforcement units procured very few new ships in the years leading up to the [establishment of a unified China Coast Guard (CCG) in 2013.] One noteworthy addition was YZ 310, a very advanced, large-displacement (2,500 metric tons) ship delivered in 2010. Although based in Guangzhou, this ship has performed rights protection operations as far north as the Senkaku Islands and as far south as James Shoal in the SCS. It appeared at Scarborough Reef in April 2012, during the standoff with the Philippines. It was also involved in a tense confrontation with Indonesian Coast Guard vessels, in which it may have used jamming equipment to intimidate its victims.” One noteworthy addition was YZ 310, a very advanced, large-displacement (2,500 metric tons) ship delivered in 2010. Although based in Guangzhou, this ship has performed rights protection operations as far north as the Senkaku Islands and as far south as James Shoal in the SCS. It appeared at Scarborough Reef in April 2012, during the standoff with the Philippines. It was also involved in a tense confrontation with Indonesian Coast Guard vessels, in which it may have used jamming equipment to intimidate its victims. From Scott Bentley’s detailed analysis of the same incident, it “appears highly likely that during that incident Yuzheng 310 jammed the communications of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) vessel Hiu Macan 001.” As with the circumstance of Chinese vessels teaming up for the Impeccable Incident, YZ 310’s involvement in Fugang Fisheries’ Spratly expedition further illustrates the sophisticated, wide-ranging coordination of China’s maritime forces.

Assisted by four FLE personnel aboard command and supply vessel F8168, YZ 310 escorted and commanded the fleet. This was especially important because of the relatively new nature of this operation. Fortified with a variety of subsidies to promote fishing in the Spratlys, and protected by FLE forces, the fleet was able to operate with confidence without being challenged by foreign vessels. A Hainan Province Government document referred to these operations as “Spratly rights protection” by “civil forces” (民间力量), ostensibly a combination of normal fisheries production and the maintenance of an increased civilian presence.

Presence at Second Thomas Shoal

Between 27 February and 28 March 2014, command and supply vessel F8168 and seven of Fugang Fisheries’ large trawlers coordinated with Sanya City’s People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) in the standoff with the Philippine’s makeshift outpost at Second Thomas Shoal. Although it is unclear what role the Fugang flotilla played during the Chinese interference in resupply of the grounded Philippine landing craft BRP Sierra Madre, it reportedly conducted “ceremonies to display sovereignty” with officers from the PAFD. Moreover, the trawlers’ shallow draft would have allowed them to operate in all areas accessible to Philippine resupply vessels, in contrast to larger PLAN warships or even CCG cutters that might have risked grounding. Philippine forces were only able to successfully resume resupply of their outpost the day after the militia was reportedly recalled. Assuming that Fugang’s vessels did not run out of supplies, this may have been an early indication of Chinese intention to loosen its interference. Two days later, a People’s Daily Overseas Edition articled a rationale for allowing the resupply, asserting that China had initially intended to prevent the delivery of construction materials to reinforce the deteriorating outpost. It credited Chinese restraint, clarifying that Philippine resupply vessels on 29 March 2014 carried only food, water, and journalists—not construction materials.    

Picketing in Haiyang Shiyou 981 Standoff

In April 2013, Hainan’s People’s Armed Police Border Defense summoned Fugang Fisheries Co. to provide escort and rights protection functions for oil exploration in the waters south of Triton Island (中建岛) in the Paracels. This area, referred to as Zhongjiannan Basin (中建南油井) by China and Nha Trang Basin by Vietnam, is plagued by disputes over energy deposits between the two countries. Escort was reported to have been conducted by Fugang Fisheries for a total of 30 days. While no specific details were released regarding the patrol, this oil exploration overwatch was likely for the wellsite investigation China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) conducted in 2013, as it later referred to the 2014 placement of the Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY) 981 drill platform in the disputed waters as “phase two” of exploration and development plans for this basin. 

On 4 May 2014, Fugang Fisheries dispatched a “militia fleet” of 29 trawlers to support the Guangzhou Military Region and Hainan Military District commands in protecting HYSY 981. This occurred south of Triton Island, the same area where Fugang conducted escort functions for oil exploration operations the previous year. The involvement of military region and military district commands illustrates just how many entities were involved in protecting HYSY 981. This force is reported to have maintained its “rights protection” operation around the platform for over two months. Altogether it drove away, rammed, and obstructed more than 80 Vietnamese “armed trawlers,” which reportedly approached in more than 20 “waves.” In the process, “China’s militia trawlers rammed and destroyed three Vietnamese trawlers.” This demonstrates that Fugang Fisheries Co.’s militia was present during multiple stages of CNOOC’s activities in the Zhongjiannan Basin.

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Exhibit 5: HYSY 981 oil rig’s location vis-à-vis Vietnam’s Energy Blocks. Image credit: CSIS

Command and Control

One can see the variety of command authorities China’s maritime militia work under; with the PAFD and local military commands providing overall control of the militia, but also allowing for ad hoc command arrangements such as “rights protection” missions under the CCG or FLE forces. Although Chinese militia operations to obstruct the Impeccable in 2009 were ordered by the then-head of the SCS Bureau of Fisheries Law Enforcement Wu Zhuang, as documented by Ryan Martinson, it is unclear whether this same structure continued in later missions. Wu Zhuang’s command in 2009 was likely facilitated by rapid, flexible mobilization arrangements through the unit’s PAFD in Sanya, or at least with some degree of approval from local military organs. These overall patterns are documented in numerous Chinese sources describing how China’s maritime militia is mobilized and commanded.

The Sanya PAFD reportedly keeps track of and communicates with its maritime militia through 250-Watt Single-Side-Band Radio, satellite phones, and very likely the Beidou satellite navigation message transmitting service commonly installed on maritime militia vessels. Hainan installs the Beidou system on all trawlers of 80-tons displacement and greater. Since larger tonnage trawlers provide greater operating ranges and the ability to intimidate other foreign fishing vessels, they are also the most suitable to recruit into the maritime militia. Most vessels in Sanya’s maritime militia, similar to maritime militia in other locations, would be required to have the necessary electronic communications equipment to ensure command and control during operations. Larger trawlers were employed in events such as Sanya’s expedition to the Spratlys in 2012, wherein all participating trawlers displaced 140 tons or more.

Sanya City’s 2013 Yearbook designated maritime militia and emergency response militia as foci of effort in the prior year’s militia reorganization work. In accordance with this emphasis, a maritime militia pilot program was enacted in 2012, whereby Hexi District, Tianya Township, and Yacheng Township each established its own maritime militia detachment. Hexi District’s unit, a maritime militia reconnaissance detachment, is composed of more than 100 militiamen and at least 12 vessels. Other districts have also established units, albeit smaller in size and more likely to be coastal response militia units on small craft, without the sea-going capabilities of entities like the Fugang Fisheries Co. The city government has also allocated special funds to build headquarters for the maritime militia, as well as to train and equip them with everything from navigational radar and communications gear to such basics as binoculars and life vests. No available evidence suggests that these units have been, or will be, allocated light arms. However, they are given precursory training in their use. Two short Internet videos show maritime militia receiving light arms training. One documents Sansha City’s maritime militia engaged in such training. The other shows militia from Guangxi military district’s training in the Gulf of Tonkin. Tasked with protecting China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the SCS, the Sanya maritime militia has coordinated with maritime law enforcement agencies to conduct numerous patrols of the Paracels and the Gulf of Tonkin areas. Since 2012, it reportedly monitored 190 foreign fishing vessels and drove away 60 vessels that, from China’s perspective, were fishing illegally.

In March 2013, Deputy Chief of Staff of the PLA Admiral Sun Jianguo—the most likely successor to Admiral Wu Shengli as PLAN commanderinspected Sanya City’s maritime militia forces. He was then concurrently serving as secretary of the State National Defense Mobilization Committee, with responsibility for overseeing defense mobilization affairs, including militia work. It should be no coincidence that he made his inspection one month prior to the increase in Sanya’s maritime militia activities in the SCS, according to the sequence of events involving Fugang Fisheries Co.’s maritime militia listed above. Based on the typical practices of PLAN and other Chinese officials, Deputy Chief of Staff/Secretary Sun provided some “guidance” (指导), likely concerning the city’s future use of maritime militia in SCS operations.

Infrastructure Expansion

For all its contributions to date, Sanya’s maritime militia forces are sailing towards an even brighter future, propelled by political support, government investment, and infrastructure expansion. Situated on Hainan’s southern coast in a major city with sprawling naval facilities, Sanya Harbor has long been an important shelter and base of operations for China’s fishing industry, welcoming numerous fishermen and companies coming from other counties and provinces. Sanya’s prime location provides an excellent launching point for fisheries development in the SCS, attracting companies like Fujian Province-originated Fugang Fisheries to station their fleets in there. Since Hainan Province became a Special Economic Zone in 1988 and in the years of opening up that followed, Sanya City developed into a hub for tourism, shipping, and fishing. The city has grown into an international tourism center, featuring new beaches and the large man-made Phoenix Island, complete with resort hotels and a cruise ship dock. The Sanya City government wants to line its harbor with wealthy yachters and improve the city’s image as an internationally competitive vacation destination and luxury residence.

Standing in the way of this image enhancement and real estate renaissance are a thousand fishing boats of varying sizes and other merchant ships. With increasing vessels from other provinces crowding into Sanya Harbor, port congestion and pollution have become severe.

January 31, 2015. Sanya Stopover; City View

Exhibit 6: Numerous fishing vessels in Sanya Harbor

In 2005, the Sanya municipal government decided to implement a plan to divide Sanya’s marine industries into “three separate ports” (三港分离), whereby over the next decade the shipping and fishery industries would gradually shift to newly built ports west of the city proper. This plan included the construction of Phoenix Island, a shipping pier at Nanshan Harbor, and the Yazhou Fishing Port (崖州中心渔港) in Yazhou District.

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Exhibit 7: City Government Plans for Yazhou Fishing Port construction, delineating functions for each portion of the shoreside

The plan is now in its final stages of implementation, with Phoenix Island and its associated facilities already complete. Yazhou Fishing Port reached initial operating capacity on 28 April 2015, although construction remains ongoing. Having advised non-Sanya registered fishing vessels to leave for Yazhou Fishing Port, the Sanya City Oceanic and Fishery Department is now scrapping obsolescent vessels left behind. Recent Google Earth imagery shows dredgers widening and deepening channels for the new Yazhou Fishing Port, affording the largest trawlers and support ships access to dockside services.

exhibit 8

Exhibit 8: Dredgers operating alongside Gangmen Village build up Yazhou Fishing Port

The port can handle 800-1,200 trawlers, and will host manifold accommodations for the fishing fleets that will operate from it, including residential areas. Fugang’s command and supply vessel F8168 reportedly now operates from this new port. Whereas its draft was too deep to reach the fisheries dock in Sanya Harbor, it is now able to tie up at dockside thanks to the new fishing harbor’s 18-foot depth. Additionally, this new port is designed to double as a site for tourists who want to enjoy fresh seafood and immerse themselves in Hainan’s storied fishing community culture.  

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Exhibit 9: Command and supply vessel F8168 becomes first ship at Yazhou Fishing Port

Due to its close proximity, this new fisheries base will fall under Yacheng Village’s jurisdiction. The village’s “2011 Notice on the Launch of Militia Reorganization Work” indicated that the maritime militia constitutes a component of that district’s militia organizational planning, and contained guidance regarding maritime militia organization. The organizational practices described largely mirrored the broader methods of maritime militia organization across China more generally. With the shift of known maritime militia entities over to the newly built fishing port, this western district of Sanya City will likely become the new home base for some of Sanya’s major maritime militia units.

Maritime militia serve in a variety of locations: on fishing vessels, small craft, or merchant ships; or even in shipyards. Yazhou Fishing Port, being dedicated solely to the marine fishing industry, would likely receive most of the maritime militia based on Sanya’s marine fishing vessels. Rooted in the marine fishing industry, such forces—with Fugang Fisheries the leading example—boast the expeditionary capacity to reach more distant waters in the SCS. By contrast, some maritime militia units assigned to port security or other supporting functions—possibly for the navy or maritime law enforcement—may remain in Sanya harbor, from which they would be unlikely to venture far.

exhibit 10

Exhibit 10: New buildings under construction to support Sanya’s fishing industry

Conclusion: Future Roles and Missions

This first article in a five-part series on the leading irregular maritime forces of Hainan Province has focused on the maritime militia of Sanya City, with Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co., Ltd. foremost among them. Examining this vanguard of vanguards has yielded insights into the status and trajectory of Chinese maritime militia development and employment. The implications for U.S. interests, presence, and influence in the SCS are significant. In the months to come, for instance, China may well dispatch maritime militia units in an attempt to make FONOPS increasingly uncomfortable for U.S. forces. Given its capabilities and experience, Fugang Fisheries may well have a significant—even a leading—front line role in such efforts.

According to Chinese military strategy, these potential harassment activities, as well as the already-documented involvement of maritime militia in such recent “rights protection” operations in the SCS as defense of the HYSY 981 oil rig, are highly logical. Yet this is just one of the functions of these versatile irregular forces. As a reserve force, the militia can be mobilized to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure—such as bridges, ports, railways, or in this case an oil drilling platform—from encroachment or sabotage. Reports of fishermen uncovering an unmanned underwater vehicle in their nets in the coastal waters off Sanya further reinforce local military and civilian leaders’ conviction that it is beneficial to strengthen the fishing population’s ability to report information, particularly the disciplined, increasingly-specialized maritime militia. PRC coastal militia and fishermen traditionally have been an important force in preventing Nationalist spies from intruding into the mainland, a role not forgotten by today’s coastal provinces.

Future contingencies will likely include more than just the maritime militia. In May 2014, Vietnam experienced first-hand the bulwark of Chinese maritime forces when a portion of its claimed EEZ was closed off for over two months by a mix of Chinese naval, coast guard, and maritime militia units protecting HYSY 981. Maritime militia called up to serve in confrontations with foreign vessels will certainly be accompanied by naval or maritime law enforcement vessels, whether they too are engaged directly, or remain in an overwatch position nearby.

With its strategically-important Yulin Naval Base and burgeoning maritime militia force, Sanya City is uniquely positioned to influence events in the SCS. As friction between regional and global powers heats up the waters around the Spratlys, the Sanya maritime militia will surely make further appearances at a time and place of China’s choosing. Potential targets of its surveillance and harassment—notably including U.S. and allied naval vessels pursuing FONOPS—must be vigilant lest they be outmaneuvered by these irregular maritime forces, China’s daring vanguard at sea.

The next article in our series on the major maritime militias of Hainan province will survey the Danzhou Militia of Baimajing Harbor on Hainan’s west coast. In January 1974, this militia played a significant role in China’s operation to seize the Crescent Group of islands from Vietnam in the Battle of the Paracel Islands. Studying the Danzhou Militia thus offers insights into one of the least understood aspects of China’s maritime militia–its potential utilization in actual warfare.

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.