By Shuxian Luo and Jonathan G. Panter
The surge of propaganda notwithstanding, several issues confront Beijing before the maritime militia can effectively function as the third arm in collaboration with the PLAN and CCG. First, the wide dispersion of the maritime militia at sea makes it harder to control than land-based forces.39 Second, it is unclear through what institutionalized cross-system integrator(s) maritime militia forces coordinate with the CCG or with the PLA’s theater command system that operates active-duty forces.40 PLA commanders and officers have openly discussed the problems of who commands the militia forces, under what circumstances, and with what authorization; who is authorized to review and approve the maritime militia’s participation in what types of maritime rights protection operations; and who is responsible for militia expenditures. Due to these uncertainties, some PLA commanders have urged further standardizing the maritime militia’s command, control, and collaboration structure.41
Budgetary shortfalls complicate the training, administration, deployment, and control of the maritime militia. As of 2010, only about 2 to 3 percent of China’s national defense budget was used to fund militia training and equipment, with additional funding coming from local governments.42 Local funding has proven inadequate to compensate for gaps in central government outlays. A guideline issued by Hainan in 2014 stated that the provincial and county/city/prefecture governments each would be responsible for 50 percent of the province’s maritime militia expenditure. For that year, the provincial government earmarked 28 million renminbi (RMB, or Chinese yuan) for the maritime militia, a minuscule quantity given the huge costs of recruitment, administration, training, and deployment (1 RMB is equal to about 0.15 USD).43 According to a 2014 estimate, one week of training for a fifty-ton fishing boat costs over 100,000 RMB for crew lodging and compensation for lost income.44 To spread out the financial burden, common practice now holds that “whoever uses the militia pays the bill.”45
Even so, funding remains a key hurdle. In 2017, the commander of the Ningbo Military Subdistrict (MSD) under the Zhejiang Province Military Subdistrict complained in the PLA’s professional magazine National Defense about a lack of formal channels to guarantee funds. When the maritime militia was assigned to a task, he pointed out, funding took the form of “the county paying a bit, the city compensating a bit, and the province subsidizing a bit.” This meant that “the more tasks you perform, the more you pay.”46 Given the fiscal strains, local authorities have forcefully lobbied Beijing for more money. The localities also see the outpouring of central government resources as an opportunity to benefit their local fishing economies. Hainan, for example, used Beijing’s subsidies to upgrade local fishing boats and increase modernized steel-hulled trawlers under the banner of “sovereignty rights via fishing.”47 In fiscal year 2017, the province received 18.01 billion RMB in transfer payments from Beijing to account for “the province’s expenditure on maritime administration.”48
The marketization of China’s fishery sector in the reform era has compounded the organizational problems arising from this unstandardized funding model. Since Chinese fishermen are now profit driven rather than de facto employees of the state, the government has both less formal authority and less economic leverage over them.49 In the 2000s, coastal provincial military districts widely reported problems in tracking and controlling registered militia fishing ships.50 According to a 2015 article by the director of the political department of the Sansha MSD under the Hainan Provincial Military District, surveys conducted in Hainan localities showed that 42 percent of fishermen prioritized material benefits over their participation in the maritime militia. Some fishermen admitted that they would quit militia activity without adequate compensation or justified their absence from maritime rights protection operations because fishing was more important.51
In a 2018 interview with one of this article’s authors, sources with firsthand knowledge of Hainan’s fishing community noted that each fishing ship participating in maritime rights protection activity received a daily compensation of 500 RMB, a sum “too petty compared to the profits that could be made from a day just fishing at sea, and even more so when compared to the huge profits from giant clam poaching.”52 These financial pressures reportedly created substantial difficulty for China in mobilizing the militia during the 2014 HD-981 clash.53 Some fishermen even manipulated maritime militia policies to evade regulations and conceal illegal attempts to fish for endangered or protected marine species in contested waters.54 Notably, such activities were completely at odds with Chinese government strategy; Beijing had explicitly prohibited illegal fishing to avoid “causing trouble for China’s diplomacy and damaging China’s international image.”55
Given the unclear command and coordination arrangements, funding problems, and weak control exerted on Chinese fishermen, it is difficult to assess the extent to which Chinese authorities control fishermen operating in the South China Sea. Some fishermen have collaborated with the CCG and/or the PLA in gray-zone operations, indicating that the maritime militia does exploit the plausible deniability afforded by their dual identity as military personnel and civilian mariners. However, given the evidence in authoritative Chinese-language sources, it is unrealistic to portray the maritime militia as a coherent body with adequate professional training or as one that has systemically conducted deceptive missions in close collaboration with the PLAN and CCG. Rather, the coordination seems to be, as various sources in China, the United States, Japan, and Singapore similarly characterize it, “loose and diffuse” at best. Achieving high levels of coordination and interoperability will likely “take a long time.”56
PLA officers and strategists worry that the maritime militia’s status as “both civilians and soldiers” could carry more risks than advantages during encounters with foreign vessels. A scholar at the PLA’s National Defense University asks, “If the militia uses force in maritime rights protection operation, should this be considered as law enforcement behavior or military behavior, or behavior other than war?”57 The director of the political department of the Sansha MSD cautions that the militia’s inadequate “political awareness” and professionalism make its members “unfit for the complex situation surrounding the South China Sea rights and interests struggle.”58 This makes it imperative, he argues, to “make the militia consciously comply with political and organizational disciplines, regulate their rights protection behavior, and avoid causing conflict, escalation, or diplomatic spats.”59
Beyond the South China Sea, the U.S. Department of Defense believes that the maritime militia played a role in a large intrusion in 2016 in waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea whose sovereignty is contested among China, Japan, and Taiwan.60 However, some members of the Japanese defense and foreign policy community, while voicing the concern that China might use fishing vessels in a future Senkaku contingency, noted that the maritime militia has been far less visible in the East China Sea than in the South China Sea.61 For instance, in one prominent international crisis between Beijing and Tokyo—a 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japan Coast Guard vessels—the evidence later showed that a drunk Chinese fishing captain bore responsibility for the accident, rather than China’s maritime militia.62
China’s deep suspicion of U.S. involvement in its home waters and China’s use of a wide set of coercive instruments to assert its claims there stand in contrast to its activities in distant waters. China’s policy agenda in Latin America and Africa, which fall within what Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell call “the Fourth Ring” of Chinese security, entails six strategic goals: energy; commodities, markets, and investments; arms sales; China’s economic access abroad; diplomatic support for China’s position on Taiwan and Tibet; and support for China on multilateral diplomatic issues such as human rights. Regions subsumed under this ring are “too large, too far away, too politically complex, and still too much dominated by the traditional colonial and neocolonial powers to come easily under the sway of a remote Asian power.”63
In these far-flung regions, China has emerged as a major distant-water fishing nation. Its fishing fleet is the world’s largest, operating a total of over 4,600 DWF vessels, according to a recent CSIS account.64 China’s tenth Five-Year Plan (2001–2005) introduced DWF as a component of the “going out” strategy, which encourages Chinese enterprises to search for new markets, resource accesses, and investments around the world.65 After China articulated in 2012 its aspiration to become a “maritime great power” and introduced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the DWF industry became a vital component of this strategy. The Chinese government sees DWF as a means to enhance China’s food security at home and connections abroad with key economies along the Belt and Road Initiative corridors.66
Most recently, the Chinese fleet’s engagement in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in regions such as West Africa and Latin America has posed a challenge to global and regional fisheries governance.67 The fleet’s unsustainable fishing practices have caused tensions with Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.68 Nevertheless, interpreting Chinese DWF activities and associated conflicts through a military lens risks securitizing what is largely a conflict of economic interests.69 As China increasingly pays attention to international reactions to the illegal fishing activities of its DWF fleet and has recently acknowledged this problem, tackling illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in these distant waters represents a potential area that China sees as cooperation rather than confrontation, with coastal states and the United States better serving its global interests and repairing its international image as a “responsible fishing country.”70
Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Operations and Tactics
The strength of the maritime militia is its deniability, which allows its vessels to harass and intimidate foreign civilian craft and warships while leaving the PRC room to deescalate by denying its affiliation with these activities.71 Meanwhile, when Chinese fishing vessels—even operating solely as civilian economic actors—operate unchallenged, their presence in contested areas helps solidify PRC maritime claims. Challenging these vessels is dangerous. Weaker states, aware of Chinese fishing vessels’ possible government affiliation, might hesitate to engage with them in a way that could provoke a PRC response. Even stronger states, like the United States or Japan, might hesitate before confronting fishing boats because of the challenge of positively identifying these vessels as government affiliated.
By “defending” China’s maritime claims from foreign interference, the PRC leverages its maritime militia in support of policies that form the core of a grand strategy of “rejuvenation” and also comprise the basis for the CCP’s domestic legitimacy. At the same time, as previously suggested, the maritime militia is among the least-funded, least-organized, and often least-professional of the forces that could be employed for these purposes. The same factors that make the maritime militia a deniable force (its civilian crews and dual-use technology) also raise the risk of accidents and escalations. This is a toxic mix: due to the maritime militia’s deniability and the core interests at stake, the PRC has a high incentive to employ it, but the more frequent its operations, the greater the likelihood of interactions with U.S. vessels that could spin out of control.
The remainder of this section draws on the aforementioned findings of this article to offer the authors’ own assessments of the maritime militia’s current strengths and limitations as a military instrument, as well as future projections.
Funding. Funding is inconsistent across units and vessels, and across provinces, which rely on different budgetary channels and have different incentives to secure subsidies. Even where funding has been secured in some localities, budget constraints in others suggest that equipment standardization is a long way off. Strained budgets also restrict training opportunities, leading to inconsistency in professionalism across the force. This raises the risk of accidents and escalations.
Command and control. Strategic, operational, and tactical command and control is inconsistent across provinces and individual vessels. The command problem is structural, arising from bureaucratic competition and multiple lines of authority. The control problem is financial, as marketization has eroded individual units’ incentives to participate in militia activities that draw away from their fishing opportunities. Command and control shortcomings inhibit combat power but contribute to the militia’s core strength: its deniability.
Combat power. Fishing boats are inherently weak forces for traditional military operations. Due to their size, they are limited by sea state and lack the propulsion plants required for high-speed maneuver. Topside gear and nets, when deployed, also limit their maneuverability. Finally, fishing vessels are soft targets for naval firepower. Fishing vessels’ “weaknesses,” however, do provide some asymmetric advantages.
First, because they are cheap, fishing vessels will always outnumber warships. Deployed in high numbers using swarm tactics, small craft can pose an asymmetric threat to warships, as U.S. Navy experience with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) forces has shown.72 But the Chinese maritime militia consists of fishing boats, not high-speed assault and pleasure craft like the IRGCN employs. Slow speeds reduce the ability to maneuver and increase the duration of exposure to layered defense (although the vessels’ deniability could reduce the risk that they will be fired upon). Instead of a kinetic threat, Chinese fishing vessels present more of a disruptive one. Deployed in even limited numbers, fishing boats can inhibit, if not prohibit altogether, a warship’s ability to conduct towed array and flight operations (both essential for antisubmarine warfare, a critical capability given China’s growing anti-access/area denial forces in the South China Sea).
Second, fishing vessels pose a huge identification problem. As small craft, they generate minimal radar return even in clear weather and mild sea states. In addition, Chinese fishing vessels frequently do not broadcast their position in Automatic Identification System and use only commercial radar and communications technology, making them hard to identify by their electronic emissions. The identification problem is compounded in congested environments like the South China Sea, which is cluttered with commercial traffic.
For these reasons, in combat operations, the maritime militia’s primary role would likely be reconnaissance support, although some vessels have also received training in minelaying.73 One of the PLA’s major force modernization objectives has been development of an “informatized reconnaissance-strike capability” modeled on the U.S. military, although command and control problems continue to impede joint force operations.74 When providing support to the PLAN in this way, it is important to note that maritime militia vessels would qualify as combatants under international law, despite their lack of military technology.75
The basic capabilities required for militia vessels to provide reconnaissance support have been widely fielded. Before joining the militia, fishing vessels are required to install equipment permitting communication with the People’s Armed Forces Department, whose purpose is to assist with the reconnaissance function.76 This includes satellite communication terminals and shortwave radio, which enable beyond line-of-sight communications.77 But without advanced sensors and the training required to use them, militia vessels will be restricted to visually identifying opposing forces. The addition of electronic-intelligence equipment would be a game changer. In that case, the appropriate gray-zone analog for China’s maritime militia vessels might be IRGCN intelligence dhows, not swarming assault craft.
Projections. Given the PRC’s continued economic growth (and increasing government revenue) and the priority placed on military modernization, a successful resolution of militia funding problems would contribute most to recurring costs like training rather than one-time costs such as equipment, much of which has already been subsidized and acquired (see figure 3). However, new technology purchases beyond civilian dual-use equipment would also be possible. Additional training would foster professionalism in ship handling, equipment use, and coordination. Technology and professionalism would enhance the combat power of individual units and those operating jointly, but at the cost of deniability, the militia’s core capability as a gray-zone force. Sophisticated maneuvers, visible advanced gear, or electromagnetic emissions can help U.S. and partner forces identify a “fishing vessel” as Chinese government sponsored.
Enhancing combat power would also raise the risk of escalatory incidents. For U.S. commanders making force protection decisions, the chances of misperception could increase when weapons or sophisticated technology are present on units of unknown intentions. On the other hand, these units’ increased professionalism could dampen the risk of escalation, as they might be less prone to ship-handling errors or suspicious maneuvering. Finally, while improved command and control would reduce vessels’ deniability, its effect on escalation risks is indeterminate. Individual Chinese captains might be more restricted in their decision-making, leaving less room for error. However, they might also have less latitude to deescalate depending on the priorities of higher command.
In the past decade, American perspectives on China have shifted. Optimism has given way to suspicion, the desire for cooperation to rivalry. This shift appears in political science articles, partisan politics, and public opinion polls.78 Hardly an issue of a military professional journal can avoid the phrase “the return of great power competition.” In a related shift, these publications now dedicate substantial attention to China’s instruments of national power that fall on the periphery of traditional military capabilities.
This is a welcome turn. As E. H. Carr pointed out, the security realm has never been neatly separable from other state activities.79 But this new, broadened focus can also fuel alarmism and facilitate escalation. Defense and military professionals must walk a fine line between prudent skepticism of China and uninformed suspicions. This article has sought to assist those efforts with a primer on one PRC policy instrument that bridges the divide between the economic, informational, and military realms. Based on our findings, we close with two broad implications for U.S. policy.
First, in the South China Sea, pending resolution of the maritime militia’s funding and organizational problems, the greatest threat to U.S. forces remains that of accidents and escalations.80 Accurately identifying maritime militia vessels, ideally beyond line-of-sight, is an important way to reduce this risk by providing commanders and staffs with increased decision-space. The sheer number of militia-affiliated vessels, their minimal electronic emissions and radar cross-sections, and the congestion of the South China Sea means that identification efforts to undermine the maritime militia’s deniability at scale require a bold approach. Solving the problem will be nearly impossible without the assistance of regional allies and partners.
Second, in regions outside of East Asia, U.S. policy makers must resist interpreting China’s DWF fleet as a traditional security instrument. These vessels are legally noncombatants, and in practical terms, their military utility is nonexistent. The more important question is whether DWF vessels, even those engaged in civilian activities, represent an effort to acclimate U.S. and partner forces to the presence of Chinese vessels (government-affiliated or not) in the Americas. The goal might be to make Chinese overfishing an accepted (if bothersome) part of the pattern of life, an activity that resource-constrained coastal nations in Latin America ignore. Ultimately, the damage wrought to local economies by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities can undermine regional prosperity. Without a wholescale effort to build local nations’ maritime law enforcement capacity, this trend will pose a far greater threat to nontraditional security realms—primarily ecological and economic—in the region, and to U.S. interests there, than any military role the Chinese DWF vessels could fill.
Shuxian Luo is a PhD candidate in international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. Her research examines China’s crisis behavior and decision-making processes, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and U.S. relations with Asia. She holds a BA in English from Peking University, an MA in China studies from SAIS, and an MA in political science from Columbia University.
Jonathan G. Panter is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. His research examines the origin of naval command-and-control practices. He previously served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, deploying twice in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He holds a BA in government from Cornell University and an MPhil and MA in political science from Columbia University.
The authors thank Ian Sundstrom and Anand Jantzen for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
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45. Xu, “Adapt to the New Situation, Comprehensively Standardize Maritime Militia Construction”; Kou Zhenyun and Feng Shi, “Jiaiang haishang minbing jianshe siyao ‘Siyao’” [“Four musts” in strengthening maritime militia construction], National Defense, no. 5 (2016): 42; Erickson and Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” 12.
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54. Wong, “More than Peripheral,” 751; author’s interview, Beijing, July 2017; author’s interview, Singapore, August 2018.
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62. Michael Green et al., Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence(Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2017), 72.
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64. Whitley Saumweber and Ty Loft, “Distant-Water Fishing along China’s Maritime Silk Road,” Stephenson Ocean Security Project, 31 July 2020, accessed 17 November 2020, https://ocean.csis.org/commentary/distant-water-fishing-along-china-s-maritime-silk-road/. In 2017, China set a goal to cap the number of distant-water fishing (DWF) vessels at three thousand by 2020, which might not materialize as the central and provincial governments continue to provide substantial subsidies to upgrade and modernize the ships; Sally Yozell and Amanda Shaver, Shining a Light: The Need for Transparency across Distant Water Fishing(Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 1 November 2019), 24, accessed 17 November 2020, https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/Stimson%20Distant%20Water%20Fishing%20Report.pdf. According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), in a research report based on automatic identification system (AIS) signatures of unregistered vessels and accounting for overseas-registered vessels of Chinese origin, “China’s DWF fleet is 5–8 times larger than previous estimates. We identified a total of 16,966 Chinese DWF vessels. These include 12,490 vessels observed outside internationally recognised Chinese waters between 2017 and 2018”; see Miren Gutiérrez et al., China’s Distant-Water Fishing Fleet: Scale, Impact, and Governance (London: Overseas Development Institute, June 2020), accessed 17 November 2020, https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/chinesedistantwaterfishing_web_1.pdf.
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67. Mallory, “China, Global Governance, and the Making of a Distant Water Fishing Nation,” 192–93, 259–62, 298–99.
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79. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, ed. Michael Cox (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 105–10.
80. S. Department of Defense, “U.S. Department of Defense Hosts First Crisis Communications Working Group With the People’s Republic of China People’s Liberation Army,” press release, 29 October 2020, accessed 17 November 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2398907/us-department-of-defense-hosts-first-crisis-communications-working-group-with-t/. In a welcome turn, U.S. and Chinese defense professionals established a “Crisis Communications Working Group” in October 2020.
Featured Image: Chinese fishing boats heading out to sea from Zhoushan in Zhejiang province. (Photo via China Foto Press)