Tag Archives: Maritime Militia

Hainan’s Maritime Militia: Development Challenges and Opportunities, Pt. 2

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

As it works to improve its maritime militia, Hainan Province is engaged in multiple lines of effort. It confronts many of the same multifarious challenges that other provinces face in constructing their own maritime militia forces. These include strengthening legal frameworks, bolstering incentive structures, constructing infrastructure, and the perennial task of organizing and improving militia training. Hainan thus offers a leading-edge microcosm of the trials and triumphs of Chinese Maritime Militia development, and a bellwether of progress in managing the sprawling effort. Part 1 of this three-part coverage of maritime militia building in Hainan Province surveyed the role of provincial officials and programs, especially at the Provincial Military District (MD) level, as well as their achievements to date; Part 2 now examines in depth the remaining hurdles and bottlenecks that they are grappling with in the process. It will explain specific measures that the Hainan MD is taking to address the abovementioned issues. These include newly promulgated regulations, specific construction projects, breakthroughs in training, increased funding, and examples of the range of direct and indirect benefits maritime militia enjoy through their service.

Challenges in Policy Execution

As explained in Part 1, the Central Military Commission National Defense Mobilization Department (CMC-NDMD) promulgates guidance for nationwide maritime militia work. Provinces, for their part, must flesh out the details in law, plans, and implementation. Numerous reports on the maritime militia by various levels of PLA commands exhort provincial governments to enact more robust laws to help govern the maritime militia. While it is difficult for outsiders to access local laws on the maritime militia, PRC news reports reveal the progress provinces are making in bolstering legal mechanisms for maritime militia mobilization. They often lament the lack of legal basis for fully implementing mobilization work, specifically the lack of legal authority in enforcing and supporting the missions of the maritime militia. One recent report from Zhejiang Province’s Wenzhou City Military Subdistrict (MSD) illuminates these efforts, representing an East China Sea-based case of this broader trend permeating China’s coastal provinces. The Wenzhou MSD struggled to levy fines on maritime militia units that refused to fulfill their duty in training exercises. The abdication of duties by some maritime militiamen triggered an effort by this MSD to evaluate the Wenzhou Court system and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Department, both of which had no legal authority to enact the punishments sought by the Wenzhou MSD.

The MSD therefore established a Maritime Mobilization Office of Legislative Affairs (海上动员法治办公室) to head efforts at drafting local rules and regulations in coordination with the city government. Ensuing maritime militia regulations drawn and passed included “Measures on Maritime Militia Intelligence and Information Incentives” (海上民兵情报信息奖励办法), “Specifications for Maritime Militia Party Organization Construction” (海上民兵党组织建设规范), “Regulations on the Education and Management of Fishing Vessels and Crews on Missions” (任务渔船船员教育管理规定), and other regulations pertaining to the mobilization of reserve forces and requisition of vessels. Troops were reportedly “stunned” when one ship repair yard that refused to cooperate in registering for national defense mobilization was fined and compelled to fulfill its duties. Whereas previous attempts by local military organs to enforce penalties against militiamen abandoning their duties were often described as “loud thunder but little rain,” Wenzhou’s courts now have the teeth to enforce national defense mobilization requisition rules. Additionally, this ordeal shows that military organs have limited legal authority over the militia; and according to Militia Work Regulations (Chapter 8), must rely on local governments or the affiliated enterprise or institution of the perpetrating militia for enforcement. Improved legal measures such as Wenzhou’s allows government and military organs to impose costs for discipline violations in the maritime militia, which directly enhances the maritime militia’s responsiveness and assures their participation in training and missions. The Hainan MD’s leadership has also expressed urgency in strengthening institutional and legal support for its maritime militia development. Specific legal measures appear to be drafted by governments below the provincial level. Like Wenzhou, Sansha City promulgated similar regulations, such as “Measures for the Regular Management of Maritime Militia” and “Rules on the Use of Militia Participating in Maritime Rights Protection and Law Enforcement Actions.”

Significant variation among the economies of each province requires their respective military and civilian authorities to calibrate the incentive structure to motivate their maritime militia units effectively. No single rubric applies, as the Wenzhou MSD discovered when it realized the national standard of fines contained in “Regulations on National Defense Mobilization of Civil Transport Resources” (民用运力国防动员条例) was insufficient to prevent abdication of mobilization duty in economically vibrant Wenzhou. The head of Wenzhou MSD’s Maritime Mobilization Office of Legislative Affairs told reporters in April that compensation for fishing vessel requisition was an example of one area that “requires a great deal of research.” The current standard stipulates that authorities should normally compensate each vessel 10,000 RMB a day, rising to 20,000 RMB a day during the busy fishing season. In Wenzhou’s thriving marine economy, this standard has proven insufficient. The same problem plagued the People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) of Yazhou, one of Sanya City’s districts that now host the newly constructed Yazhou Central Fishing Port known to harbor Hainan’s maritime militia forces, as described in the articles on Sanya and Sansha in this series. In addition to hosting Hainan’s maritime militia forces, the Yazhou PAFD has also established its own unit, but experienced difficulties in motivating its unit during the peak period of the fishing season. As Hainan continues to modernize its fishing fleet through vessel upgrades and the replacement of old smaller vessels with larger tonnage fishing vessels, fishing enterprises will attain greater economies of scale. Mitigating lost income due to involvement in maritime militia activities will require increasing compensation.

Parallel efforts to incentivize service help motivate militiamen with financial incentives, including compensation for lost wages, injury, and equipment damage; as well as even reduced insurance costs. A survey conducted by the director of the Sansha Garrison Political Department in 2015 found that 42 percent of Sansha’s maritime militia attached greater importance to “material benefits” than “glory” in their service.

Chinese legislation for the compensation of the military, called the Regulations on Pensions and Preferential Treatments for Servicemen, also applies to the PAP and militia. To further encourage China’s militia to execute their missions, the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ codified the treatment of militia injured, missing, or killed in action in its Measures on the Support and Preferential Treatment of Militia Reserve Personnel Carrying out Diversified Military Missions, effective on 26 September 2014. These measures categorically list the various types of missions and conditions by which the member’s regimental-grade or above PLA commanding unit (county-level PAFDs are regimental-grade units) and the county-level government would determine the status of that member. Missions include supporting the PLA in combat and “participating in maritime rights protection missions.” Militia personnel can be granted the status of “martyr” (烈士), thereby entitling their families to receive money from local governments according to the militia member’s status. For example, survivors of a martyred militia member receive what are known as “Martyr Praise Funds” (褒扬金), equivalent to “30 times the national per capita disposable income.” In addition to “Martyr Praise Funds,” survivors also receive a one-time payment for the member’s “sacrifice in public service” (因公牺牲), equal to 40 months of pay. Under certain circumstances families can also receive annual payments for the militia member’s “sacrifice in public service,” which amounts to a maximum of 21,030 RMB (approximately U.S. $3,235) per the most recent adjustments by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The military is also allowed to offer other “special payments.”     

Militia members are also taken care of and provided for if injured and disabled in the course of their duties. Depending on militia members’ status and the classification of disability they fall under, they (or their families) are granted amounts in accordance with PLA disability compensation under the “Disabled Veterans Special Care Regulations” (伤残军人优抚条例). The standards of compensation are adjusted each year as the national average income changes. According to the most recent national adjustments to the standards of compensation, disabled militia members injured in combat can receive a maximum annual payout of 66,230 RMB (approximately U.S. $10,189) — an extremely generous sum in a fishing village. Major General Wang Wenqing wrote in July 2016 that “we must provide suitable treatment and pensions according to the law for those maritime militia that are injured or sacrificed in the course of their service.” In sum, while a number of regulations already exist to assure militia members their families are taken care of no matter what might happen, authorities continue to optimize incentives for their relatively riskier missions.

Sometimes indirect benefits of service are equally valuable. In a dramatic example, executives of the Sanya Fugang Fisheries Company, home to the maritime militia that harassed USNS Impeccable in 2009, were indicted for numerous crimes of bribery in 2015. Yet Haikou Intermediate People’s Court granted them leniency, citing the extensive service by its maritime militia detachment in protecting China’s maritime rights and interests. Numerous articles written by PLA commanders and officers of local commands call for bolstering the incentive structure for the maritime militia. They suggest various means, including rewarding high-performing units and personnel regarding education, civil service examinations, employment, and promotions. In fact, this is already included in some of China’s regulations, such as in the Martyr Praise Regulations, which explains in detail the preferential treatment of martyrs’ families. Children’s education is supported through reductions in tuition and grade requirements. Regarding survivors’ employment, it states that “local government human resources and social security departments will provide preferential employment services for martyr survivors suitable for employment.” These are just a few examples of the many benefits available to address a variety of negative outcomes for maritime militiamen harmed or killed in the course of their service. Nonetheless, the PLA must rely on local governments to deliver such benefits, some of which—in a problem endemic to the lower levels of Chinese bureaucracy—may not always readily provide such support in the way that the regulations’ drafters envision.      

Since the militia are included in China’s national budget, provincial governments have to factor militia expenditures into their budgets. Maintaining a “financial reporting relationship,” the MD logistics departments report militia operating expenses and budget requests to the provincial finance departments for approval. Responding to national militia construction guidance and national maritime strategy, Hainan’s government is devoting increased resources to the maritime militia. In 2013, the Hainan Provincial Government allocated 28 million RMB (approx. U.S. $4,069,767) in special funding for province-wide maritime militia construction. This amount was, in principal, to be matched by county governments, suggesting a much greater total allocation. Correspondingly, reports show that Hainan Government’s defense expenditures have grown significantly, from 65 million RMB (approx. U.S. $9,447,674) in 2015 to over 121 million RMB (approx. U.S. $17,587,209) in 2016, an 88.7 percent boost. While specific allocation of this increased spending remains unclear, a portion of it likely went to further supporting maritime militia construction. Maritime militia bring heightened complexity in terms of financial support largely because of the cost burden of their vessels and professions. Operating costs and risk of injury or loss during normal operations is much greater for maritime militia than for land-based militia.

Multiple sources indicate that plans are underway to construct maritime militia bases, yet remain early in their implementation. MD Political Commissar Liu Xin indicated in late 2015 that sites for developing such bases were being selected and under review. MD Commander Zhang Jian suggests resolving the problem of insufficient support for the maritime militia by “integrating comprehensive supply and support bases with the construction of airports, piers, and the expansion of key islands and reefs in remote waters [in the outer reaches of the Near Seas].” The Hainan Government has approved plans granting a portion of land in Wenchang County for a rear logistics area for Sansha City, including port facilities for its newly built maritime militia fleet. The first phase of the Wenchang County project is a pier-side facility, slated to begin construction in 2017. Those same plans name the Yazhou Central Fishing Port as another harbor for the fleet, which was confirmed in photographs of Sansha City’s new maritime militia fleet mooring there. Public housing is also available for fishermen and workers on-site at Sanya’s new fishing port, conceivably a boon to maritime militia force readiness. Other proposals sent up to the provincial government call for government financial support to construct fisheries logistics bases on China’s newly built artificial islands in the Spratlys, citing the achievements of a key maritime militia unit in Sanya City

Any infrastructure that is built will certainly be dual-use, and there is great demand for improving facilities to support fisheries development in the Spratlys. Public goods and infrastructure to support Hainan’s marine fishing industry, such as port development projects, benefit its maritime militia forces directly. During meetings of the Hainan Provincial Standing Committee in December 2013 and the 10th Plenary Session of Hainan Provincial Defense Mobilization Committee in October 2014, Party Secretary Luo revealed plans to research and prepare dual-use infrastructure for the maritime militia. Hainan Governor Liu Cigui wrote in August 2016 that Sansha City will expand its grassroots governance organizations from the Paracels to the Spratlys, an initiative also confirmed by Sansha City’s leadership. This effort has also resulted in the construction of a PAFD on Fiery Cross Reef; the lack of any permanent civilian population there suggests that the PAFD exists solely to manage maritime militia. Chinese news reports also confirm a maritime militia presence on Mischief Reef.

Implementing joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense in border and coastal areas likewise requires manned militia outposts to boost security in remote areas. The new construction and reactivation of numerous militia outposts to monitor Hainan’s coast and Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea was proposed by the director of the Hainan MD’s Training Office Jiang Yongjun. Jiang observes that “maritime defense” (海防) today encompasses a much broader scope and is more demanding than in the past in terms of functions, domains (sea, air, cyber, etc.), and content. This requires outposts at sea and on islands and reefs to serve as additional layers of surveillance and intelligence networks to increase strategic and operational depth. One identified outpost is operated by the Lingshui Autonomous County Coastal Defense Militia, located on Hainan’s Southeast coast on Niuling Mountain. The Lingshui outpost is stated to have developed beyond just a passive watch post into one that provides “active early warning,” thanks to its radar station manned by trained PLA veterans. Recording and identifying vessels transiting an area of 6,600 square nautical miles, they regularly update the Lingshui County PAFD concerning this marine traffic. Substantial reclamation and construction on Tree Island and Drummond Island in the Paracels has yielded two new “informatized militia outposts.” Other reports indicate three more outposts under construction: on Antelope Reef, Observation Bank, and Yagong Island.


Training of the militia is conducted according to outlines drafted by the PLA General Staff Department, now a responsibility of the CMC-NDMD. The latest is the Outline for Militia Military Training and Evaluation implemented on 22 May 2007. This was the first militia training outline to stipulate specific training requirements for militia units that specialized in supporting non-army PLA services, such as militia units that train with and support specific PLAN units. Militia training focuses primarily on preparing militia cadres, emergency response militia, and specialized technical militia. Militia cadres, the leaders of militia units and full-time civilians engaged in militia work at the grassroots PAFDs, must not only be knowledgeable about their own training, but also possess the skills to train the personnel in their respective units. Additionally, China’s Militia Work Regulations states that the PLA services and academies should assist the MDs in militia training.

June 2013: Military and civilian officials from neighboring Ding’an County visit maritime militia cadres during their training session in Jiuzhou Township of Qiongshan District.

Training is conducted at militia training bases established by county and city PAFDs, or in capable enterprises if the county lacks a militia training base. One of Major General Wang Wenqing’s solutions for resolving training issues was to increase maritime militia use of training bases. Efforts were already underway in Hainan to provide maritime militia with facilities and bases for training. Discussions were held during a military affairs meeting held in September 2012 by Party Secretary Luo Baoming on the topic of “maritime militia building and construction of a provincial comprehensive militia training base.” While the location of the base remains unclear, it may have been established in 2013 in Qiongshan District, Haikou Municipality. Operated by the Hainan MD Training Battalion, this training base held its first week-long training session for 172 maritime militia cadres in June that year. These cadres will return to their units across Hainan to conduct the grassroots training of the bulk of maritime militia personnel. Additionally, news reports indicate that elements of the Sansha Maritime Militia were sent to a militia training base in “northern Hainan,” suggesting that they too received training from this location.  

More stringent training standards are also being applied, alongside increased recruiting of technical and professional personnel and veterans into the maritime militia force. One report concerning a unit from a district of Hainan’s capital, Haikou City, explained that some specialized maritime militia personnel became seasick in rough weather due to their lack of experience operating at sea, reflecting greater involvement of professionals from technical institutes and academies in maritime militia operations. To break in the more white-collar maritime militia personnel, this district’s PAFD held most of its training activities at sea. In another instance, members of the Lingshui County Maritime Militia complained about their evaluation scores after their PAFD increased standards and difficulty during training exercises in 2016. To rectify previous discipline violations, the Lingshui PAFD Political Commissar has reportedly dismissed under-performing cadres and personnel and has increased training standards to reflect real combat requirements. He even personally led at-sea training of the Lingshui Maritime Militia in the Paracels and Spratlys for months on end. Diligent PAFD leaders and cadres are critical to ensuring higher quality training standards more aligned with mission operational requirements, thereby increasing maritime militia capabilities and discipline.

The February 2017 news clip below shows Lingshui County Maritime Militia training, led by Political Commissar Xing Jincheng (who holds the rank of Colonel), including at-sea training and the inside of their outpost on Niuling Mountain.

February, 2017: This screen capture of news coverage on Lingshui County Maritime Militia depicts a recent exercise featuring this unit conducting at-sea weapons training. The caption in this image reads “Maritime Militia Emergency Response Detachment Platoon Leader Lin Zhongjian.”

PAFDs strive to hold maritime militia meetings and training sessions during the offseason to avoid imposing economic losses on maritime militia members, as holding up a vessel at pier-side can cost its owner tens of thousands of RMB in forgone fishing income. They must also account for the training schedules of active duty units in order to coordinate militia training with the PLA. The Hainan MD leadership describes maritime militia training with the following formulation: “fishing and training while at sea, concentrated training in rotations while in harbor, selected opportunities for joint training, regular three-lines joint training, and intensified assault training when on the brink of war” (出海边鱼边训、在港集中轮训、择机拉动合训、定期三线联训、临战突击强训). Commander Zhang specifies that the MD system leads basic training on land, while special training at sea is facilitated by the PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG). Limitations in available data make it difficult to ascertain the true extent to which the PLAN or CCG trains the maritime militia. For example, an older report from the 2007 Sanya City Yearbook states the Yulin Naval Base worked with the PLA Garrison in Sanya City to train over 1,178 militia members in two years, yet lacks details regarding the content of the training.

Militia units or personnel with more specialized training requirements may be sent to receive further training from the MSD, MD, or active duty troops stationed in the province. Units with a greater demand for technical specialization or coordination with PLA services can obtain assistance from the MD to make arrangements for such training. As reported by the South Sea Fleet Headquarters Military Affairs Department, PLAN active duty units coordinate with MSDs and PAFDs to train maritime militia “specialized naval militia detachments” (海军民兵专业分队). While militia training requirements are outlined at the national level, the specific arrangements at the local levels are suitably tailored to ensure militia units receive the training they need and the PLA has an operationally effective militia force at its disposal.

Training in Joint Military-Law Enforcement-Civilian (Jun-jing-min) Defense

Efforts to incorporate maritime militia forces from the Hainan MD into large scale joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense exercises are reflected in the following recent exercises:

  • August 2014: A water garrison district (水警区) of the PLAN South Sea Fleet (SSF) organized a military-law enforcement-militia joint exercise in the Gulf of Tonkin involving various naval ships and aircraft, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) elements, law enforcement cutters, and maritime militia. The live-fire exercise simulated joint escort for a convoy of transport ships as well as the defense of a security zone set up around a drilling platform. The numerous threats presented included enemy ship ambushes and approaching fishing vessels and frogmen.
  • November 2014: The Hainan MD organized a military-law enforcement-militia joint exercise at an undisclosed location in Hainan involving “tens of thousands” of personnel across multiple bureaucracies. The theme of this exercise was to prevent the landing of enemy agents by using People’s Armed Police forces at their landing site and CCG ships and maritime militia fishing vessels to repel the enemy landing force. This exercise was designed primarily to practice coordinating various forces under a joint command system and involving local military and civilian leaders directly in the command of local forces, rather than passing them off to the military.
  • July 2016: A PLAN SSF Base organized an exercise for defense of “an important location” (要地防御实兵对抗演习). This included anti-air defense forces, shore-based missiles, fighter aircraft, submarines, mine warfare, special forces, local security forces, and both land-based militia as well as maritime militia. Some of the maritime militia involved are identified as belonging to a unit in Sanya City’s Tianya District, suggesting that the exercise was organized by the Yulin Navy Base in Sanya City.
  • August 2016: A naval district of the PLAN SSF organized another iteration of the same type of joint exercise held in August 2014, again focused on escort and defense of an oil rig in the Gulf of Tonkin. Asserting that joint defense command and coordination methods are improving, this exercise displayed greater intensity than the 2014 exercise. Intensified contested conditions, mine warfare, and submarine warfare were introduced, attempting to improve and expand joint operations in the South China Sea. All services were involved, including even PLAAF H-6 Bombers, which flew overhead.

Two of these joint training events were organized by the PLAN South Sea Fleet and appear modeled on the May 2014 HYSY-981 oil rig incident. Active involvement of maritime militia alongside some of China’s most advanced platforms—in exercises that simulate recent events that brought the PRC and Vietnam to the brink of conflict—reflects serious approaches to integrating the maritime militia into the nation’s joint maritime forces.

Conclusion: Making Patriotism Pay

Part 1 illustrated how developments in national militia construction guidelines were adopted by China’s key maritime frontier province and how Hainan’s leadership envisions the operational use of its maritime militia. This article, Part 2 in a three-article series evaluating Hainan Province’s overall development of its maritime militia, has introduced some of the major impediments that could hinder the successful construction and use of maritime militia forces in China.The Hainan MD is actively addressing these challenges to ensure its maritime militia is effectively incentivized even in the event of individual members’ injury or death in the line of duty, receives sufficient training both independently and with active duty forces, and has access to civil-military dual-use infrastructure that will give these forces a solid foundation from which to launch required missions. The economic benefits from port infrastructure developments in Hainan will directly improve the commercial underpinnings of its maritime militia. A growing network of militia outposts is improving the militia’s abilities to monitor nearby waters. PAFDs are moving in-step with Sansha City’s effort to expand grassroots governance structures throughout Chinese-occupied features in the Paracels and Spratlys, thereby providing a PLA presence for on-the-ground militia management. Advanced training practices at bases and with active duty forces are incorporating Hainan’s maritime militia into its joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense planning. Challenges may become increasingly acute as its maritime militia forces grow in technical sophistication and require more intense or tailored training, likely placing a heavier burden on the Hainan MD. Any ambitious use of the maritime militia must be supported with the right mix of incentives, a continual focal point in the militia work of local civilian and military authorities that is slowly becoming more regulated. With the overall national guidelines for militia work and specific measures to see its implementation having been examined, the next and final installment in this series will present some of the results of these efforts as well as discuss other potential factors driving maritime militia building. It will also raise additional considerations for assessing China’s Maritime Militia more broadly.

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

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: Image of the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company in the July 2016 edition of China’s Militia.

Hainan’s Maritime Militia: China Builds a Standing Vanguard, Pt. 1

Through the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, the authors have just published China Maritime Report No. 1, entitled “China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA.” In it, they propose a more formal term for China’s maritime militia: the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The present article, the first in a three-part conclusion to their  nine-part series on the PAFMM of Hainan Province, will instead use the term “maritime militia” to maintain consistency with all preceding installments and to facilitate discussion of China’s broader militia construction.

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

Hainan Province’s unique geography makes its buildup of maritime militia units the spear tip of China’s prosecution of gray zone operations in the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force whose leading units are lauded as models for other localities to emulate. This series has therefore examined Hainan’s leading maritime militia units, located in Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen (in parts one and two), and Sansha. To understand these grassroots units and their development, it has delved deeply into their respective local environments. Having examined these leading entities in depth, it is time to take a province-wide look at larger policy processes and trends in implementation. This installment will also examine the intentions of China’s leaders to construct new elite militia units tailored to meet heightened requirements in China’s armed forces. This new type of front-line militia will serve as a standing force for more regular employment in support of China’s objectives at sea. Part 1 of this final series will therefore explore maritime militia building in a more systemic organizational context, chiefly at the Provincial Military District level; while Part 2 will address specific challenges and how they are managed. Part 3 will conclude this series by appraising the results of Hainan’s maritime militia construction effort and discussing some additional dynamics at play in the provinces. This first part will thus start by probing how a frontier province like Hainan responds to national level militia building initiatives and the measures taken by provincial leaders to oversee its implementation.

China’s national defense system is divided geographically into Theater Commands, previously termed Military Regions. Each Theater Command contains several Provincial Military Districts (MD), where the militia’s direct chain of command begins. As each province is divided into municipalities, each MD is divided into multiple Military Sub-districts (MSD); within each are numerous county-level and grassroots People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). County-level PAFDs are staffed by active-duty personnel while the grassroots PAFDs are non-active duty organizations staffed by “full-time people’s armed forces cadres” (专职人民武装干部) who represent the direct interface between the militia and the PLA chain of command. Each MD oversees the militia work conducted by the MSDs and PAFDs within its area of responsibility.

Local governments provide funding and support while local military commands assume the bulk of responsibilities in maritime militia organization, training, and command. Government agencies such as the Maritime Safety Administration and the China Coast Guard (CCG) assist with aspects of maritime militia building pertaining to their bureaucratic functions, such as training in search and rescue and instruction on maritime law and regulations relevant to their operations.

The National Environment in Which Hainan Province and Its Militia Operate

Propelled by strategies and policies at the national and provincial levels, China’s Maritime Militia continues to grow and develop robustly. Many PLA and government leaders from all levels have some understanding or experience in building or working with the militia as an official component of China’s armed forces. Leaders from the top echelons of Central Military Commission (CMC), Party, and State leadership; as well as leaders of the PLA services, military regions, and provincial MDs; all attended the last National Militia Work Conference held in Beijing on 15 December 2011, a meeting to establish guidelines for nationwide militia work. President Xi Jinping himself likely became intimately familiar with the militia system during his career, particularly as the former deputy director of the Nanjing Military Region National Defense Mobilization Committee from 2000 to 2003. Overall militia policy is first set in Beijing and implemented through the principal civilian and military leaders of the provinces and counties via a dual leadership system of militia work (民兵工作双重领导制度). The militia itself represents an important personnel-centric line of effort in China’s Military-Civilian Fusion concept, recently elevated to a “national strategy.”

Ongoing PLA reforms mandate a reduction in militia personnel nationwide, continuing a trend of replacing outdated infantry militia units with technically capable militia more suited to supporting each of the PLA services in modern, informatized warfare. Maritime militia, meanwhile, are growing in proportion to their land-based counterparts as China prepares for “maritime military struggle,” as highlighted in its 2015 Defense White Paper. This seaward shift is materializing in national-level militia policy as well as in actual militia unit construction. Coastal cities like Shanghai and Beihai have all reported increased maritime militia growth. However, as China’s southernmost province tasked with administering all of Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Hainan bears commensurately large expense for border and coastal defense militia construction.

PLA reforms have also modified management of the MD system by splitting the former General Staff Department (GSD) into several new departments, one of which is the new Central Military Commission-level National Defense Mobilization Department (CMC-NDMD). Already deemed to be in “post-transfer” (转隶后) status by China’s military press, the MD system is now managed by the CMC-NDMD, relieving Theater Commands of many administrative burdens, including the supervision of militia work in the provinces. Discussion in the PLA over the exact role of Theater Commands in the development of national defense mobilization capabilities appears to be ongoing, indicating that the exact relationship between Theater and MD commands in the building and management of reserves has yet to be clarified. Huang Xiangliang, director of the National Defense Reserve Force Department of the Nanjing Army Command College, explains how the PLA reforms strengthened “centralized strategic-level leadership over the nation’s militia and reserves” by directly connecting MDs to the CMC. As the reserves diversify to meet the demands of each PLA service, Huang elaborates, those “services will put forward their requirements for the reserves, which will then be organized, trained, and supported by each level of the MD system.” For the maritime militia, this will entail greater numbers of specialized units trained to support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations.

Statements and policies guiding maritime militia construction are emerging from the CMC-NDMD. During a March 2016 interview, the newly promoted head of the CMC-NDMD Lieutenant General Sheng Bin confirmed the prominence afforded maritime militia building in the 13th Five Year Plan. China, he declared, will “adjust and optimize the scale, structure and layout of its militia and reserves, emphasizing construction of the maritime militia, coastal defense militia, emergency response militia, and new types of reserves.” Indeed, the Outline of the 13th Five Year Plan emphasizes strengthening the reserves and “maritime mobilization forces” in particular. On 28 July 2016, the head of the CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Department, Major General Wang Wenqing, also gave public guidance for solving common issues in maritime militia building.

Implementation is progressing apace. As CMC-NDMD Deputy Head Major General Hu Yishu describes in an October 2016 article in China’s Militia, a PLA Daily publication guiding national militia work, that revisions are underway on the nation’s Guidance Law for Maritime Militia and Border Defense Militia Military Training Work. This will regulate the tactics and training methods for “maritime militia participating in rights protection actions and support for PLAN actions.” With significant PLAN South Sea Fleet presence, the Hainan MD will likely see greater demand for maritime militia units configured to support PLAN operations in the South China Sea.

The Provincial Command

The Hainan MD’s military leadership published extensive articles in late 2015 comprehensively outlining missions, organization, training, and other aspects of Hainan’s maritime militia development and operations. The writings, by MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin and MD Commander Major General Zhang Jian respectively, appeared in National Defense, a domestically-oriented journal sponsored by the PLA Academy of Military Science. They reveal much about how the Hainan MD envisions and plans to execute national militia guidelines to help operationalize Beijing’s South China Sea strategy. Essential to directing a province’s construction of its maritime militia, such leaders directly promulgate militia construction requirements to their civilian government counterparts. The works of Liu and Zhang thus warrant close examination.

Invoking Chairman Xi’s and the Central Party’s guidance on maritime militia building and “strategically managing the ocean,” Political Commissar Liu Xin focuses on the role of the maritime militia in “maritime rights protection” (efforts to uphold and enforce China’s maritime claims). Liu explains how drawing in the people, especially fishermen, will help give China freedom of action—and the initiative—in maritime rights protection. According to Liu, the bulk of the maritime militia force will comprise the province’s original units, but will be led by newly created emergency response units with “new types” of maritime militia as the core. Evaluations will be strengthened to ensure there is a core force of “new-type fishing vessels” and “elite standing maritime militia emergency response units.” They must “be able to respond when called upon and win emergency maritime rights protection wars of initiative” (打赢海上应急维权主动仗). Liu’s remarks reflect a combination of higher combat readiness levels for emergency response units—i.e., the elite units—and the more regular rights protection roles of the majority of maritime militia units.

News reports state that Liu lead a new initiative in early 2016 to promulgate policies and plans for maritime militia organization and involvement in rights protection. Under his lead, the province passed the 13th Five Year Plan on Hainan Province’s Maritime Militia Construction,” providing systematic planning for missions; as well as guidelines, requirements, and measures for maritime militia building. Liu reportedly devoted great time and effort to key maritime militia construction issues, visiting numerous islands and reefs in the process. He was also reported to have been personally involved in multiple joint training events with active duty forces, emergency response plan drafting, and the strengthening of over ten maritime militia emergency response detachments. He also spent time working with local governments, ensuring that such pressing issues as expenditures and maritime militia base construction were included in their military affairs meetings.

Hainan MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin (center) and Sansha Garrison Political Commissar Senior Colonel Liao Chaoyi (left) inspect one of Sansha City’s new “militia fishing vessels.”

Writing in more operational terms, MD Commander Zhang Jian explains how to increase the professionalization of maritime militia personnel and vessels. According to Commander Zhang, ships must be large-tonnage, high-speed, seaworthy steel-hulled fishing vessels strong enough to withstand collisions. These vessels should be drawn from fishing enterprises and cooperatives whose vessels frequent the sea areas in which their services are required for missions, as well as those vessels whose crews have previous experience engaging in rights protection. Furthermore, material and equipment are allocated according to the requirements of maritime rights protection and naval combat support, including communications and reconnaissance equipment and “defensive combat weaponry.” Personnel from different specialties should be grouped in units according to the following formulation: “Recruit experienced fishermen to serve as vessel operators as well as military personnel and veterans with maritime specialties to be core combatants; and select People’s Armed Forces cadres with maritime rights protection experience and medical staff with at-sea experience to be command and support personnel [respectively].” This implies that a mixture of personnel may crew maritime militia vessels, as embodied in the widespread phrase “determine troops based on the vessel” (以船定兵) for maritime militia organization. This style of organization could also conceivably be tailored to different missions. This is echoed in other provinces as well, such as Liu Xuan, head of the Shuidong Township PAFD in Guangdong Province. He stated in early 2016, “next year we will take in even more experienced and hardened fishermen with good work ethics, bolster them with primary militiamen, and hold targeted training in the subjects of maritime rights protection and war time support.” Liu Xuan’s statement indicates that formerly land-based coastal militia may also be assigned to maritime militia vessels. This demonstrates how local military commands are mobilizing current resources in varying ways to produce stronger maritime militia forces.

Commander Zhang stipulates three types of operations for the maritime militia:

  1. Their use as “civilians against civilians for regular demonstration of rights” (以民对民常态示权). The government will take the lead in implementing command and organizing maritime militia to fish in even the more remote waters (within the Near Seas) with greater organization and scale. This ensures that a certain number of China’s fishing vessels are present in “China’s waters” at any given time, achieving regular presence and declaration of sovereignty. Maritime militia are to be summoned immediately when foreign civilian vessels from neighboring countries are found encroaching on fishing rights or disrupting Chinese development of islands and reefs, resource extraction, or scientific surveys. Such civilian countermeasures against other civilians are envisioned to gain the initiative rapidly.
  2. Their use in “special cases of rights protection by using civilians in cooperation with law enforcement” (以民协警察专项维权). Maritime militia will “receive orders” from their command to conduct special rights protection missions when neighboring countries violate China’s maritime rights and interests and when China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) requires their assistance. This often entails the combining of maritime militia and MLE forces to form a joint law enforcement force, whereby the militia participate directly in rights protection law enforcement actions by supplementing MLE forces. In these actions, together with MLE forces, maritime militia primarily conduct perimeter patrol (外围巡逻), sea area control (海区封控), alerting and expulsion (警戒驱离), confrontation (海上对峙), and combining to push back (合力逼退) foreign vessels.
  3. “Participation in combat and support-the-front by using civilians to support the military” (以民援军参战支前). When a maritime armed conflict or maritime local war erupts, coastal cities and counties will organize their maritime militia to participate in combat and support-the-front operations, exploiting numerical advantages in personnel and vessels, as well as their familiarity with the seas, islands, and reefs. Units will conduct transport, supply, rescue, repair, and medical support in the Near Seas (Yellow, East China, and South China Seas) and on front-line islands, reefs, and mission areas. Meanwhile, maritime militia will assume direct combat support by coordinating with maritime combat forces to conduct reconnaissance, sentry duty, and guarding against surprise attacks.

The Hainan MD leadership emphasizes that Hainan’s maritime militia forces contain a core set of more professional units with higher levels of readiness, ensuring that militia forces can mobilize rapidly out to sea. These points echo the call to action by Major General Wang Wenqing, head of CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Bureau, for resolving issues involving maritime militia construction nationwide. He affirmed the emphasis on an elite standing force of maritime militia composed of captains, engineers, and veterans operating year-round. These are the elite front line units that are most likely entrusted with sensitive missions involving foreign vessels, such as potential interference in future U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and routine operations; as well as the disruption and attempted sabotage of foreign survey vessels.

Joint Military-Law Enforcement-Civilian Defense (军警民联防)

The National Border and Coastal Defense Conference, last held in Beijing on 27 June 2014, provides guidance for the Border and Coastal Defense Committees (BCDC) established to coordinate defense of territorial sovereignty, protect maritime rights and interests, and ensure border security. Organized in a similar fashion as the mobilization work of China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee System, the BCDC system assembles leaders and staff at each level of government and military command into a single body for planning border and coastal defense work. President Xi Jinping stated in the 2014 meeting that China’s border and coastal defense will “wield the features and advantages of joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense” (发挥军警民联防的特色和优势). Also contained in China’s defense white papers, such as the 2013 Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, and featured frequently in Chinese reporting on the militia, this operational concept has been a part of China’s coastal defense system since the PRC’s founding. It is the primary means for the militia to participate in combat readiness for coastal defense. It entails the mobilization and integration of the various military, law enforcement, militia, and societal forces into a joint defense force.  

Today, Hainan Province is actively implementing this joint defense concept. The joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense concept is also often referred to as the “three lines,” with the maritime militia constituting the front line, backed up by a second line of CCG and a third line of PLAN forces. The Hainan MD has reportedly held workshops and major exercises with active duty forces since 2013 to determine campaign and tactical guidance for the maritime militia. Located in a key maritime frontier province, the Hainan MD is continually working alongside the PLAN and CCG to fine-tune its joint military-law enforcement-civilian defense through large-scale exercises.

Provincial Implementation

Following the 2011 National Militia Work Conference, Hainan began a pilot project for maritime militia development in February 2012. The Hainan MD sent research groups to study grassroots maritime militia organizations, gaining better understanding of the force through meetings with unit leaders. On 20 September 2012, the Hainan Province Party Chief and Hainan MD First Party Secretary Luo Baoming launched a Provincial Committee Military Affairs Meeting on the subject of “Advancing to a New Level Party Control of the Military and Construction of National Defense Reserves in Preparation for Military Struggle in the South China Sea.” As Hainan Party Secretary since August 2011, Luo has been a champion of maritime militia building, instructing during a 2015 Provincial MD Conference on Maritime Defense Work that the province “expend great effort to strengthen maritime defense construction focusing on maritime militia.” While Luo was in Beijing in March 2016 working on his province’s 13th Five Year Plan, a Reuters reporter raised the topic of Hainanese fishermen acting as militia. Denying nothing, Luo stated publicly that the fishermen in his province participate in the protection of maritime rights and interests, and undergo training in self-defense. Meanwhile, other influential voices in the province, such as former head of the Provincial Government Center for Social and Economic Development Research Liao Xun, were emphasizing the role of the maritime militia in their writings.

Provincial civilian and military leaders were busy crafting policies and plans for bolstering the maritime militia, releasing the “Opinions on Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” in 2013. This also resulted in an official “Notice on Further Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” released by the Hainan Provincial National Defense Mobilization Committee. These two official documents stipulated manifold requirements for the 2013 annual reorganization of the militia force guided by the MD and executed by counties. This annual reorganization process is conducted to implement reforms and correct outstanding issues in militia organizations. The documents also required that provincial and county governments split the cost of maritime militia construction. By the end of 2013, the province added 28 maritime militia companies with 2,328 personnel and 186 vessels to its maritime militia force.

In early 2014, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee, the State Council-level coordinating body, hosted a symposium in Hainan entitled “Maritime Mobilization 1312” to ensure that each level of Hainan’s government focused on maritime militia development. The meeting featured maritime rights protection demonstration events in Tanmen Township’s harbor and also established a leading small group to coordinate the province’s maritime militia construction, headed by Provincial Deputy Party Secretary Li Xiansheng. National directives likely bolstered maritime militia readiness in the province, preparing them for the province-wide mobilization of maritime militia to defend the HYSY-981 oil rig in May 2014.

According to Political Commissar Liu, Hainan will develop its maritime militia in three phases. The first phase entails finding the proper regulations through pilot projects, research and discussion of tactics, and at-sea testing. The second phase will focus on increasing capabilities through intensified training of the new, elite maritime militia and improving its support system. There should also be further testing and evaluation to ensure that the maritime militia are readily available and operationally effective. The third phase will focus on the “regular use” of the maritime militia (mechanisms for enduring maritime militia organization and employment). This effort will integrate units into the “three lines” joint rights protection system and increase their ability to regularly conduct reconnaissance and escort support missions in relatively “remote waters” (within the Near Seas). Progress to date in Hainan’s maritime militia forces suggests that they may have begun phase one after the 2011 National Militia Work Conference; and entered phase two with the development of a core force of maritime militia, through the introduction of increasingly capable vessels, communications equipment, and joint training. Looking forward, increased maritime militia presence in the Spratlys may also be an indicator of advancing progress in phase three.

Since militia building must proceed in accordance with local conditions, different provinces may exhibit distinct practices in organizing their maritime militia forces. Reflecting their large marine economies, Hainan and Guangdong provinces have signed cooperation agreements involving many fields of social and economic development. During the recent meetings to deepen cross-provincial cooperation in September 2015, Hainan Party Secretary Luo made several proposals for the two provinces. These included cooperation in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, marine science and technical research, maritime joint rescue, rights protection and law enforcement, and—most pertinent to this article—maritime militia construction. It remains unclear if the provinces have fostered some form of cooperation regarding their respective maritime militia forces. In October 2015, however, Sansha City mayor Xiao Jie hosted a forum to consult with Guangdong- and Guangxi-based fishing companies on the development of Sansha’s marine fishing industry, including the Sansha Fisheries Development Company, a state-owned maritime militia organization. Cooperation in maritime rights protection efforts was one of Xiao’s key points to Guangdong and Guangxi fishing companies, suggesting that Party Secretary Luo’s provincial maritime militia cooperation initiative may have gained traction rapidly.

This image from the August 2014 edition of National Defense shows former director of Sanya City’s National Defense Mobilization Committee and city mayor Wang Yong visiting (看望) the maritime militia.

Despite apparent enthusiasm within Hainan’s leadership, however, there appear to be broader concerns about the lack of initiative shown by local governments across China in building the militia, centering on the “separation between construction and use” (建用分离). With little prospect for utilizing reserve forces, local governments may show less enthusiasm for supporting their construction. For example, the Lingshui County Government leadership used to avoid meeting its military counterparts, which previously consumed money and materials without providing reliable troops to respond in emergencies. Having the militia serve as a source of manpower during emergencies and disasters helps rectify this discrepancy, as encapsulated in the oft-used slogan “a reserve force that responds in times of war and emergencies” (一支战时应战、平时应急的后备力量).

The Tanmen Maritime Militia, for instance, is lauded for its daring rescues of mariners in distress over the years, providing an organic emergency response force that is most familiar with local marine conditions. A recent example was when the Sansha Maritime Militia was mobilized when a Hainanese fishing vessel ran aground near Fiery Cross Reef on 28 February 2017. Having received numerous distress calls, the Sansha Maritime Militia mobilized one of its vessels, Qiongsanshayu 000312, to attempt a rescue. However, shallow waters and poor weather conditions prevented them from getting close enough. After two days of standing by, a nearby PLAN helicopter flew in to evacuate the stranded fishermen.

Maritime militia play a significant role in responding to emergencies, helping local governments with search and rescue and disaster relief. When PLAN aviator Wang Wei went down in waters 70 miles south of Hainan after colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane in 2001, Hainan’s fishing fleet and militia contributed notably to the search effort. Sanya City alone organized over 500 fishing vessels to search at sea while more than 4,000 people and militia scoured the coast for Wang. Sanya’s PAFD Head Zhou Naiwu also ordered the Tianya Maritime Militia Rapid Response Unit out to sea to join the effort. Other neighboring localities involved included Ledong Autonomous County, which dispatched hundreds of fishing vessels and over 3,000 cadres, militia, and fishermen. That event demonstrates direct support by local government-built militia forces for national military objectives. Today, increasingly capable maritime militia forces can more effectively assist local governments and military organs in responding to future emergencies at sea.

July 2015: A maritime militia company from Chengmai County conducts “near seas” training. A banner declaring in Chinese and Vietnamese China’s maritime jurisdiction, likely in the Gulf of Tonkin, is hung across the port side of the vessel’s house. (Chengmai County Government Website)

Conclusion: Trolling Together for Sovereignty Claims

A confluence of national strategy, structural reforms, and development plans has informed China’s future national militia development, giving increased prominence to the maritime militia. The front-line maritime militia units documented throughout this series have developed and operated within the Hainan MD’s evolving reserve force structure and PLA chain of command. As such, Hainan’s principal military and civilian leaders have critically shaped maritime militia force development, and continue to do so. Part 1 of this series has illustrated how national-level guidance has resulted in actual implementation in China’s key maritime frontier province, and how the Hainan MD leadership envisions the construction and use of maritime militia under its jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Additionally, while fishermen constitute a core body of personnel to operate maritime militia vessels, there may also be a variety of other personnel aboard to fulfill other functions within their units. Part 2 will address specific policy implementation to date, and how Hainanese officials are working to manage challenges in maritime militia development to achieve further progress. Part 3 will evaluate the results of Hainan Province’s maritime militia construction and suggest corresponding implications. Due to the varying economic conditions and geographies among the provinces, understanding how MD leaders execute maritime militia force planning, construction, training, and utilization can help to anticipate the extent and limits of Chinese Maritime Militia capabilities at sea.

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

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: June 2013 Sansha Maritime Militia personnel were sent to a militia training base on Hainan Island to receive a week of intensive training by the Hainan Provincial Military District, including weapons training as shown in this photo.

Riding A New Wave of Professionalization and Militarization: Sansha City’s Maritime Militia

By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson

On 21 July 2013, several dozen Sansha City “residents” stood before the city government building and swore oaths during an inspection by Mayor Xiao Jie (肖杰) and his military counterpart Garrison Commander Cai Xihong (蔡喜宏). Clad in militia uniforms and toting Type-56 assault rifles, the Sansha Maritime Militia was officially established to uphold Chinese interests throughout the Paracels and beyond. According to the Garrison Commander, Sansha City’s Maritime Militia are given five major missions in China’s struggle for maritime rights protection: regular declarations of sovereignty, conducting reconnaissance and patrols, cooperating with maritime law enforcement, participating in marine rescue, and supporting combat operations. They also repel foreign fishing vessels, safeguard islands and reefs, and provide disaster relief for civilians living there. Such missions represent important, evolving roles for the militia as China seeks to reinforce its claims to the South China Sea. Sansha’s Maritime Militia is on the frontlines of this effort given the municipality’s responsibility for administering all Chinese-claimed features in the South China Sea.

We previously examined in depth the maritime militia forces of Sanya, Danzhou, and Tanmen (Parts One and Two). No examination of the maritime militia of Hainan Province would be complete, however, without scrutinizing the Sansha Maritime Militia. As China’s newest, southernmost municipality, Sansha City is a critical node in China’s South China Sea strategy. Given its responsibility to administer all of China’s claimed features within the nine-dashed line by Beijing, Sansha lies at the apex of Chinese civilian presence in the South China Sea and efforts to exercise administrative control over China’s claimed waters. To better grasp the range of tools China uses to achieve such control, deeper understanding of Sansha’s Maritime Militia is necessary. 

Most importantly, recent organizational developments concerning the Sansha Maritime Militia demonstrate a new professionalization and militarization of China’s elite maritime militia forces. Indicators of increased professionalization include hiring recently separated veterans, standardization and enhancement of training, and in some cases lack of clear fishing responsibilities in return for payment of salaries. Key indicators of increased militarization include preparations to make small arms rapidly available to deploying units according to mission requirements, construction of new bases, deployment for non-commercial purposes, and introduction of new classes of vessels with dedicated weapons and ammunition storage rooms, reinforced hulls, and water cannons.

Significantly, the Sansha Maritime Militia is being created from scratch using personnel that receive extremely generous guaranteed salaries—seemingly independent of any fishing or marine industrial activity on their part, a dedicated arrangement that we have not seen elsewhere. This represents a significant departure from what we have described previously regarding the maritime militias at Sanya, Danzhou, and Tanmen. These militias were formed and evolved over years if not decades, drawing upon the community’s resident skills and resources. The majority of such militia members engaged in fundamentally civilian economic activities with occasional additional purposes assigned through a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command, including military law enforcement-style activities. While these three elite militias remain important to Chinese “rights protection” activities, Sansha City’s new, purpose-built militia may in the future be even more so.

With logistics and maintenance facilities, as well as family housing, Woody Island has been transformed into something akin to a regional hub base. Other facilities in the Paracels offer the Sansha Maritime Militia sites to deploy for rotational operations. The Sansha Maritime Militia’s organizational structure is increasingly military-like. It is formally organized and operated in a joint, three-layer structure that incorporates China’s three major sea forces, with maritime militia forces on the front line, Coast Guard forces on the second line, and China’s naval and military forces as a third line backstop. Finally, the Sansha Maritime Militia may have front-line responsibilities in the Spratlys in addition to its responsibilities in the Paracels. Alternatively, it may serve as a model for the development of another new leading militia specific to that area, much as the Sansha Maritime Militia seems to have drawn inspiration in part from the Tanmen Maritime Militia. Sansha City Mayor Xiao, who led a delegation to inspect the Tanmen Maritime Militia on 15 November 2013, is in fact a former Party Chief of Qionghai City—the county level city that administers Tanmen Township. He served there from May 2000 to July 2002, which placed him in a position of responsibility for the development of the Tanmen Maritime Militia. This experience likely gave him some degree of familiarity with the dynamics of local militia building, skills that may later have assisted him during the buildup of the Sansha Maritime Militia.

Sansha Maritime Militia conducting a nighttime inspection of a vessel whose crew was deemed guilty of “rights infringement and illegal fishing.” (National Defense)

The Sansha municipality and a divisional-level PLA garrison were created on 24 July 2012. This involved reorganizing what were previously small “Paracels Militia” (西沙民兵) platoons established by the Paracels Working Committee into the new Sansha Maritime Militia. Lu Le, a Paracels Militia member since 2003, proclaimed that the reorganization catalyzed considerable change, including greater intensity and specialization in training. The scattered fishing communities that live permanently and semi-permanently in the Paracels often hail from different areas, raising challenges for maritime militia organization. The fishermen were not steadily present on the islands and returned to disparate cities along China coasts. To preserve cohesion among the maritime militia and among the residents on the islands, the Sansha City government provides fishermen with stipends and other material support to encourage sustained habitation there. In early 2016 Mayor Xiao stated that the Sansha City government spends ten million RMB (approx. $1.5 million USD) annually to support fishermen transitioning to more permanent livelihoods on the islands in response to deteriorating fish stocks and declining incomes. The government pays stipends to people living on the islands in amounts varying by their island of residence. For example, each person living in the Crescent Group earns 45 RMB ($6.79 USD) per person a day, providing they stay on the islands for 180 days of the year. Those residing on Mischief Reef for 150 days of the year earn 80 RMB ($12.07 USD) per day. Various government-provided benefits foster a more permanent population and generate a relatively stable community from which ranks of the maritime militia can be drawn.  

Efforts to populate the islands have benefited the maritime militia. The force was relatively small when Sansha City was established, with only two maritime militia companies—each responsible for protecting a portion of the islands and reefs in the Paracels. Expanding mission requirements led to an expanded force. Now there are six maritime militia companies with more than 1,800 personnel and 100 fishing vessels. Sansha fishermen have also joined a “law enforcement coordinating team” composed of 30 personnel and five boats. Between its inception and June 2015, the Sansha Maritime Militia conducted 228 missions to report information, expel foreign fishing vessels, prevent foreigners from landing on the islands, and conduct rights protection and stability maintenance.

According to Garrison Commander Cai Xihong, Sansha City’s civilian and military leaders and the maritime militia were recognized for their role in what they refer to as the “Zhongjiannan Security Operation” (中建南安保行动). Chinese maritime forces conducted these maneuvers south of Triton Island when China’s HYSY-981 oil rig was placed in the Zhongjiannan Basin in May 2014. The Sansha City and Garrison leadership established a sea command post and sent a command and coordination group to the China Coast Guard’s “forward command post at sea” (海上前线指挥所) to coordinate efforts among the maritime militia and other task forces operating in the “theater” (战区). While confrontation erupted around HYSY-981, Sansha’s Maritime Militia forces were also engaged in protecting other areas of the Paracels from encroachment by foreign fishing vessels. In support of this “security operation,” militia members reportedly confiscated short-wave radios and binoculars from detained foreign fishing vessels.

As has been observed in other operations involving China’s maritime militia, the former Guangzhou Military Region issued mobilization orders to local commands in Hainan Province which in turn mobilized maritime militia units from various localities to participate in this security operation. Sansha City’s close proximity to the site of the Chinese operation around HYSY-981 suggests the reason why the theater command required Sansha City to commit Maritime Militia resources to the joint effort. While coordination occurred and the Sansha Maritime Militia reportedly completed its portion of the operation, it remains unclear exactly what tasks Sansha’s Maritime Militia performed.

Assembling a New Fleet

While stationing militia units on the islands and reefs and using the militia units to patrol around them remain priorities, efforts are underway to establish a state-owned maritime militia fishing fleet that can work in more distant waters at the behest of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Accordingly, the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company (三沙市渔业发展有限公司) was established in February 2015. Authoritative sources demonstrate that this company is explicitly meant to serve as a maritime militia organization to “develop maritime rights protection capabilities” for Sansha City.

According to an article in the June issue of National Defense magazine, the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company will organize its vessels into maritime militia units as follows. “The fisheries company will form a flotilla (支队), subsidiaries will set up squadrons (大队), production [groups] will set up companies (中队), and individual vessels will be squads (区队).” (The characters of each unit-level are included because of inconsistent translation of Chinese terminology for units.) The fisheries company will also establish its own People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD), primarily responsible for managing the “steel-hulled militia fishing vessels.” This fisheries company is different from more commercially oriented fishing enterprises that apply to enter the maritime militia. An online job recruitment posting for this company notes that hiring military veterans is a priority for all positions on board each vessel and offers substantial salaries. Paying a salary represents a departure from the widespread practice by which income is paid as a share of the vessel’s catch plus fuel supplements and performance bonuses. This departure suggests two things. First, that China is professionalizing some units of the maritime militia. And second, that the parent companies may essentially be front organizations, rather than primarily commercial enterprises.

Under this new rubric, ‘patriotism’ pays well for Sansha militiamen. For example, the position of crewmen (水手) advertises an annual salary of 90,000 RMB ($13,494 USD). This compares very favorably to the average annual net income of a Hainanese fishermen, which stands at only 13,081 RMB ($1,961 USD) according to China’s 2014 Fisheries Yearbook. The same posting advertises an annual salary of 170,000 RMB ($25,489 USD) for captains, which is highly competitive by Chinese standards and provides far greater purchasing power than the same salary in the United States or another Western economy. Each advertisement also offers insurance, retirement, medical, unemployment and living benefits for every position, referred to as “five social insurance and one housing fund” (五险一金) according to the standards of similar enterprises under Hainan’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council. Regular maritime militiamen are typically compensated by local governments for income lost due to service or training, and incentivized with preferential treatment, Party membership, subsidies and potential pensions; but do not receive a salary. Thus, compensation for regular maritime militia units does not match the compensation of a salaried position aboard these new vessels. Furthermore, when juxtaposed with the salary of a second lieutenant (Platoon Leader) in the PLA Ground Force of around 36,000 RMB ($5,413 USD) as reported by the People’s Daily, the relatively high salaries advertised by the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company indicate that China is devoting tremendous resources to hire professional maritime militia personnel.

As reform of the PLA forces the retirement or separation of 300,000 of its personnel, positions in the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company offer continued service, a competitive salary, and robust social welfare benefits, seemingly without relation to any catch performance. The career trajectories of two individuals who are current Sansha Maritime Militia members—Xu Zhuang (许状) and Liu Jianqiang (刘坚强)—serve as useful examples. Xu served in Fisheries Law Enforcement starting in 1994, but applied to join the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company in 2014. He won the position of captain within the newly forming militia fleet. When Xu led a trip to the Spratlys in November 2013, he reported a foreign fishing vessel approaching one of the PRC features and assisted maritime law enforcement forces in expelling the vessel. Liu served in a PLA Army vessel transport unit until he was demobilized three years ago. He has since joined the ranks of the Sansha Maritime Militia. 

Although construction has not yet started, one proposal submitted to the Hainan Provincial Government in early 2015 reveals a great deal about plans to build up this state-owned militia fishing fleet. The proposal involves development of a new port to act as a strategic rear area for Sansha City, specifically to act as a logistics base for the 84 militia fishing vessels allocated to Sansha City by Hainan Provincial authorities. According to the proposal, ten of these vessels were delivered in 2015, with 70 more expected to be delivered in 2016. Concerned about the fragile environment of Woody Island and the inability of Hainan’s other fishing ports to support this large militia fleet, the proposal makes a case for the appropriation of 20 sq. km of coastal land in Wenchang City’s Puqian Township on Hainan Island’s northern coast, to be designated as a strategic rear area for Sansha City. Hainan Governor Liu Cigui, deputy governor Mao Chaofeng (head of the leading small group overseeing the project) and Sansha City Mayor Xiao Jie have all verified that this project is receiving “special preferential policies.” Currently in the planning phase, the project is also included in the 2016 Hainan Provincial Government Work Report. That the project is included in these reports indicates high political support for the project’s construction as part of a larger plan to develop the Mulan Bay area. The port facility will likely be equipped to support the operations of the Sansha Maritime Militia fleet, with specifics yet to be determined.

Until the new port is built, the militia fleet remains based out of the various fishing ports of Hainan. For example, the Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor that opened 1 August 2016 provides ample mooring for some of the Sansha Maritime Militia. The link embedded here contains aerial footage of the fleet moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor.

18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. Image source: Hainan Government
18 June 2016: Newly-built fishing vessels for Sansha City moored at Yazhou Central Fishing Harbor. Note the exterior hull reinforcements and mast-mounted water cannons. (Hainan Government)
Map depicting locations mentioned in this article. Source of original baseline image:  Sansha City Government.

In keeping with his position as local Party-State leader, Mayor Xiao Jie appears to be spearheading development of the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company. In October 2015, Xiao hosted a forum with prominent private fishing companies from Hainan and other provinces to foster cooperation and learn from their experience. One of the six key points Xiao made was to strengthen cooperation in maritime rights protection. In demonstrating his leadership role, Xiao inspected the company in early July 2016. Reflecting the PLA practice of having political instructors of company-sized units also serve as company Party branch secretaries, political instructor Zhang Jun (one of the company Party branch secretaries) pledged to resolutely execute the guidance of General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Central Party while working in the South China Sea. With six of the company’s Party branch secretaries in his meeting room, Xiao emphasized the fishing company’s responsibility to protect China’s maritime rights and interests. This structure of six Party branch secretaries corresponds to the six company-sized units of maritime militia reported by Garrison Commander Cai in June 2015, further indicating that the Sansha Fisheries Development Company is a dedicated, professional maritime militia organization.

28 June 2016: Sansha City Mayor Xiao holds a meeting with Party Secretaries of the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company. Image source: Sansha City Government
28 June 2016: Sansha City Mayor Xiao holds a meeting with Party Secretaries of the Sansha City Fisheries Development Company. (Sansha City Government)

Photos of newly-built Chinese fishing vessels with hull designators “Qiongsanshayu” (琼三沙渔), indicating that they are fishing vessels belonging to Sansha City, have recently received attention on Chinese Internet websites. They look quite different from the average Chinese fishing vessel, bearing comparatively robust hull designs with additional rub strakes (“rub-rails”) welded onto the hull’s steel plating aft of the bow. Such pronounced rub strakes are generally uncommon on Chinese fishing vessel hulls and appear to be added to mitigate damage from potential collisions. These vessels also possess mast-mounted water cannons. Both features could facilitate more aggressive close-in tactics, such as shouldering, ramming, and spraying. For instance, Captain Lu Wei of Sansha City’s Comprehensive Law Enforcement Ship No. 2 complained in May 2015 of difficulties in pursuing foreign fishing vessels as they are no longer permitted to board and inspect them. His only resort is to issue verbal warnings and to use the ship’s water cannon, which, due to the limited agility of his larger ship, is unable to stay on target. Luckily for Lu and his colleagues, Sansha Maritime Militia units are equipped to fill this gap in “maritime rights protection.” They are able to continuously harass foreign vessels with water cannons thanks to their tighter turning radii and shallower draughts, allowing them to sustain such harassment even when foreign vessels seek refuge in the shallows surrounding disputed features. Demonstrating additional official demand for maritime militia vessel capabilities, Hainan Provincial Military District Commander Zhang Jian wrote in the October 2015 edition of National Defense that priorities for fishing vessels in the maritime militia will be based on larger displacement steel-hulled boats that can reach higher speeds and can sustain collisions (抗冲撞). Existing Chinese fishing vessels already clearly outclassed Vietnamese fishing vessels when they clashed near the HYSY-981 oil rig in May 2014. The features of these new vessels can further ensure that neighboring states’ fishing fleets are repelled successfully in future confrontations.   

One of the shipyards constructing Sansha’s Maritime Militia fleet is a subsidiary of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. Chongqing Chuandong Shipbuilding Industry Co., Ltd. (重庆川东重工船舶有限公司), located in Sichuan Province far up the Yangzi River, has constructed a large number of Sansha City’s new fleet of fishing vessels. Several navigational warnings issued by China’s Maritime Safety Administration indicated that the twelve hulls listed below left the shipyard and were towed down stream between 16 December 2015 and 3 February 2016, a span of less than two months.

Sansha City Fishing Vessels Departing Chuandong Shipyard


Hull Classification


Date of Departure
Qiongsanshayu 00209

Qiongsanshayu 00210


16 December 2015
Qiongsanshayu 00113

Qiongsanshayu 00115

Qiongsanshayu 00118


31 December 2015
Qiongsanshayu 00116

Qiongsanshayu 00119


20 January 2016
Qiongsanshayu 00120

Qiongsanshayu 00121


22 January 2016
Qiongsanshayu 00122

Qiongsanshayu 00114

Qiongsanshayu 00117


1 February 2016
21 December 2015: Fuling Maritime Safety Department posted photos of Qiongsanshayu 00209 and Qiongsanshayu 00210 leaving the Chuandong Shipyard. Additional vessels can be seen under construction in the yard. Image source: Fuling Government
21 December 2015: Fuling Maritime Safety Department posted photos of Qiongsanshayu 00209 and Qiongsanshayu 00210 leaving the Chuandong Shipyard. Additional vessels can be seen under construction in the yard. (Fuling Government)

At least two additional shipyards launched vessels for Sansha City from Guangdong Province—the Huangpu Wenchong Shipyard (中船黄埔文冲船舶有限公司) in Guangzhou and the Xijiang Shipyard (中船西江造船有限公司) in Liuzhou. Both are subsidiaries of China State Shipbuilding Corporation. The two vessels produced by the Wenchong Shipyard, a well-known builder of surface warships for the PLA Navy (PLAN), are the first fishing vessels ever to be produced there. At this rate of production, many if not most of Sansha City’s 84 new fishing vessels will be delivered by the end of 2016. Although an accurate appraisal of the total number of vessels already delivered is difficult, AIS reports from Marine Traffic dating to December 2015 show reported positions of 29 vessels with the name “Qiongsanshayu.”

On 14 July 2016, the Sansha City Maritime Safety Administration held its first “Sea-Air Three Dimensional’ Joint Rescue Exercise” in waters north of Woody Island. The newly-built militia fishing vessels “Qiongsanshayu 00111” and “Qiongsanshayu 00310” can be seen participating directly in the firefighting and rescue exercise. (Dagong Bao)

The shipbuilding technology service company Guangzhou Taicheng Shipbuilding Industry Co. Ltd. (广州市泰诚船舶工业有限公司) provided interior furnishing for the vessels produced at the Xijiang and Wenchong Shipyards. The page displaying its furnishing work for a vessel produced by the Xijiang Shipyard describes a “weapons and equipment room” (武备室) and “ammunition store” (弹药库) on the main deck of the vessel. Additionally, the image below appeared in a June 2015 feature article on Sansha City in National Defense showing Sansha Maritime Militia members loading crates labeled “light weapons” (轻武器) onto one of the newly delivered fishing vessels. While China’s Maritime Militia is ostensibly an unarmed force, it is apparent that, at a minimum, preparations are underway to arm at least some of its vessels.

Sansha Maritime Militia participate in exercises to load materials on their vessels. 32-kg crates labeled “light weapons” are shown being loaded with cranes. The exercises were also featured on the Guangzhou Military Region Website in September 2015. Image source: National Defense
Sansha Maritime Militia participate in exercises to load materials on their vessels. 32-kg crates labeled “light weapons” are shown being loaded with cranes. The exercises were also featured on the Guangzhou Military Region Website in September 2015. (National Defense)

A new fleet of vessels is only as effective as its crew. Operating on the front-lines of disputed maritime claims, Sansha’s Maritime Militia will need enhanced training and discipline to conduct its assigned missions. Garrison Commander Cai explains that personnel receive training collectively and in smaller groups while stationed on islands, covering topics such political education, reconnaissance, rescue, “assisting in rights protection” and “shooting at sea.” Sansha Garrison Chief of Staff Li Zhaofeng told reporters in January 2016 that Sansha Maritime Militiamen were sent to a training base in Northern Hainan to receive military training. According to Li, they must pass evaluations in subjects on navigation, communications, fishing practices, and legal regulations before they are allowed to sea. Such efforts will be necessary for the maritime militia units to be effective enough to integrate with PLAN and CCG vessels to execute joint defense of China’s maritime claims.

Building a Militia Network to Defend Outposts

An important priority after Sansha City was established was to form the civil-military institutional structures for Party leadership and national defense building in the South China Sea. Institutions established by Sansha City include its National Defense Mobilization Committee (国防动员委员会), Ocean Defense Committee (海防委员会), Military Facility Security Committee (军事设施保护委员会), and a Double-Support Work Leading Small Group (双拥工作领导小组). A routine of military affairs meetings (议军会) also began. “Double Support,” short for “support the army and give preferential treatment to military families, and support the government and cherish the people” (拥军优属拥政爱民), is a policy based on a reciprocal civil-military relationship whereby military and local civilian work units reinforce each other. For example, military units can assist in local construction projects while local governments help facilitate military exercises. These arrangements help ensure Party control over the military in Sansha City, facilitate Party-State-Military cooperation in military-related construction efforts throughout Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea, and foster valuable synergies between PLA forces and the civilian population. Present at many of these meetings, Sansha City Mayor Xiao Jie is fulfilling his responsibility as First Party Secretary of the PLA Garrison’s Party Committee. He must work alongside Garrison Commander Cai Xihong and Political Commissar Liao Chaoyi (廖朝) to ensure that local military work and construction of the reserves is included in the city’s overall planning, which prominently features matters related to Sansha’s Maritime Militia. There may be no other city in present-day China where the military and civilian populations are so closely linked. Sansha has a high troop-to-civilian ratio stemming from the city’s extremely small population. Not surprisingly, the resources of the central government and military are critical to Sansha City’s development. These dynamics won Sansha City the title of “National Double-Support Model City”—an award for municipalities that provide exceptional support for the military—received by Mayor Xiao in Beijing on 29 July 2016.

An important role for militia units based in China’s border and coastal regions is the participation in military-police-civilian joint defense (军警民联防), a concept included in three of China’s recent Defense White Papers (2013, 2010, 2006). Joint military-police-civilian defense applies Mao Zedong’s People’s War concept to the peacetime security of border and coastal regions through combined use of the PLA, local security or law enforcement forces, and the militia. Sansha City organizes its border and coastal defense in the form of joint defense involving the Navy, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia. Such efforts aim to improve coordination between the military and local forces to create three lines of operation for maritime rights protection—a “first line of militia, a second line of administrative law enforcement, supported by a third line of the military.” Manning a first line to advance China’s objectives while limiting escalation, maritime militia forces can confront foreign vessels under support provided by China’s Navy and Coast Guard. Employment of this three-tiered structure of force demonstrates an official institutionalized approach to integrating China’s three sea forces. This concept is the subject of ongoing discussion in the PLA and is already put into practice by such localities as Sansha City. Given the concept’s evolving status, it is unclear how successful it would be if executed as envisioned as a full spectrum of operations. One particular weakness may be command and control in real time in a contested environment.

Essential to managing the maritime militia, PAFDs were reportedly established on several South China Sea islands in January 2015, each of which reports to the Sansha City Garrison. Proliferating in step with the expansion of PRC grass roots governance structures, they are located on three Paracels features: Woody Island (永兴岛), Tree Island (赵述岛), and Drummond Island (晋卿岛). Further south in the Spratlys, a PAFD was established at Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁). Subordinate to China’s Provincial Military Command system, PAFDs are the local PLA organs established in military sub-districts, counties, cities, districts, townships, and enterprises that are responsible for local PLA recruitment and registration work, supporting demobilized troops, and organizing and training the militia. The scant population inhabiting Woody Island and other PRC-occupied features means these PAFDs must be primarily engaged in militia and defense mobilization-related work, rather than conducting the PLA’s grassroots work with the masses. Operational command of the militia belongs to Sansha City Garrison, while the PAFDs are responsible for the regular command and training of Sansha’s Maritime Militia. Additional PAFDs may be established in the future on other PRC-occupied Spratly features. Mischief Reef, for instance, hosts a maritime militia “flag-raising squad,” indicating that elements of the Sansha Maritime Militia are already stationed there.

Sansha City has devoted considerable resources to bolstering its joint defense infrastructure on the islands and reefs in the Paracels. According to Mayor Xiao, Sansha has invested over 40 million RMB ($6 million USD) to construct a joint defense command center, officially beginning construction on 25 July 2015. It provides joint command, training, management and “combat readiness materials storage” (战备物资存储) functions. The project supports information sharing and provides the facilities for the unified organization of maritime law enforcement. Some personnel of the Sansha Maritime Militia are receiving training on how to man this joint defense command center, as depicted below. The exact extent to which command and control is exercised over forces in the South China Sea from this center remains unclear.

23 January 2015: Sansha Government Website features its maritime militia operating workstations of the “Naval, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia Joint Defense System.” Image source: Sansha City Government
23 January 2015: Sansha Government Website features its maritime militia operating workstations of the “Naval, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia Joint Defense System.” (Sansha City Government)

Local militiamen are assigned the important task of manning militia outposts (民兵哨所) established in border and coastal areas around the country. From these outposts, militia units conduct patrols and defensive missions, and monitor the surrounding areas. Such outposts help secure China’s remote regions and act as eyes and ears for the PLA. On the edge of China’s contemporary frontier, Sansha City’s military authorities are also building militia outposts to secure PRC-controlled islands and reef areas. On 24 July 2015, Sansha City built its first “informatized ocean defense militia outpost” (信息化海防民兵哨所). It is manned around the clock by the maritime militia stationed on Tree Island. This militia outpost supplies data to the joint defense command center on Woody Island and is supported by growing communications infrastructure throughout PRC-occupied islands in the South China Sea. The outpost also reportedly tracks targets in the surrounding seas using AIS, marine radar, and video surveillance. These outposts are built within multi-purpose buildings that also house the PAFDs. Sansha’s civilian and military authorities plan to construct more militia outposts to “upgrade capabilities in maritime rights protection, administrative control of sea areas, and emergency response and rescue.” Drummond Island has also completed its militia outpost and PAFD building and has been approved as a future logistics base. In short, these military functions are being performed by organized professional units often dressed as civilians.

Recent Image of Tree Island and construction of its militia outpost (large red building) and pier. Image source: Chinese Internet Bulletin Board System (BBS)
Recent image of Tree Island and construction of its militia outpost (large red building) and pier. (Chinese Internet Bulletin Board System (BBS)
28 July 2016: Drummond Island finishes construction of its PAFD and militia outpost multipurpose building. Image source: Macao Daily
28 July 2016: Drummond Island finishes construction of its PAFD and militia outpost multipurpose building. (Macao Daily)

Documentation of Sansha Maritime Militia activities and infrastructure in the Paracels Island Group is relatively clear. Chinese open sources reveal much less about related activities in the Spratlys, especially on or around the features China built up since 2014. The PRC has stated clearly that these outposts will support China’s fishing industry, but has not acknowledged the existence of China’s Maritime Militia within this context.

Conclusion: The One to Watch

As this dynamic unfolds, the Sansha Maritime Militia and its newly assembled fleet of dedicated vessels is the most important unit to watch. By decree, it is responsible for patrolling and defending China-claimed features in the Paracels, Macclesfield Bank, Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratlys. In future incidents involving the maritime militia in the South China Sea, the Sansha Maritime Militia will likely be the ‘go-to’ unit that Chinese authorities will entrust to enforce claims and confront foreign vessels. Sansha City is making great strides to construct a maritime militia capable of manning and defending PRC-occupied features and venturing into the surrounding seas to uphold China’s maritime claims backed up by the PLAN and China Coast Guard. 

In preparing to fulfill these sweeping responsibilities, the Sansha City Militia is even more militarized in structure, forces, and character than its elite counterparts in Sanya, Danzhou, and Tanmen.

This elite, professional unit is formally integrated into a joint operational structure incorporating all three of China’s major sea forces: the maritime militia, Coast Guard, and Navy. Within this layered conglomerate, Sansha’s Maritime Militia is charged with operating at the front lines and engaging foreign vessels directly, ideally achieving Beijing’s objectives without the other two forces needing to intervene. To this end, it is being professionalized and militarized to an unprecedented degree.

This series covering Hainan Province’s Maritime Militia explores key local units in-depth, exposing much of the details of this inadequately understood tool China uses to uphold and further its maritime claims. The next and final article will examine Hainan’s development of the maritime militia at the provincial military district level, and provide insight into the future course and trajectory of China’s Maritime Militia.

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

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and an expert contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, he delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson is the author of Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development (Jamestown Foundation, 2013). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. Erickson blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com. The views expressed here are Erickson’s alone and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: Two to three different classes of these fishing vessels are in production, although their functional differences remain unclear. The vessel depicted above is produced in fewer numbers and with a significantly different design, suggesting a functional specialization. Image source: Twitter.

Challenging China’s Sub-Conventional Dominance

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

A recent RAND report underscored the significance of the strategy by certain states of employing measures short of war to attain strategic objectives, so as to not cross the threshold, or the redline, that trips inter-state war. China is one of the countries cited by the report, and the reasons are quite evident. The employment of this strategy by China is apparent to practitioners and observers of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region. The diplomatic and military engagements in this region call attention to the South China Sea, where China’s provocative actions continue to undermine international norms and destabilize peace and security.

Vietnam and the Philippines are the two claimants determined to oppose such actions with the support of other regional security stakeholders. They intend to shore up their military strength, especially in the maritime domain. The Philippines decided to upgrade military ties with the U.S. through an agreement allowing forward basing of American military personnel and equipment. It will receive $42 million worth of sensors to monitor the developments in West Philippine Sea.  Additionally, India emerged as the lowest bidder to supply the Philippines with two light frigates whose design is based on its Kamorta class anti-submarine warfare corvette.

The recent visit of US. President Obama to Vietnam symbolizes transformation of the countries’ relationship to partners and opened the door for the transfer of lethal military equipment. Vietnam is considering the purchase of American F-16 fighters and P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Its navy is already undergoing modernization with the induction of Russian Kilo class submarines. India, which uses the same class of submarines, helped train Vietnam’s submariners. Talks with Vietnam to import India-Russia joint BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles seem to be in an advanced stage.

But, this military modernization is concentrated on strengthening the conventional domain of the conflict spectrum, while China accomplishes its objectives by using sub-conventional forces. China’s aggressive maritime militia and coast guard are the real executors of local tactical contingencies, while its navy and air force provide reconnaissance support and demonstrate muscle power.

This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam's maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China's deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea. MARITIME POLICE / AFP - Getty Images
This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam’s maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China’s deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea.  (MARITIME POLICE / AFP – Getty Images)

The 2014 HYSY 981 oil rig stand-off, when China’s vessels fired water cannons and rammed into Vietnamese boats, serves as a classic example of China’s use of sub-conventional forces. Some of these platforms are refitted warships, and the total vessel tonnage has far exceeded the cumulative tonnage of neighboring countries. China has also deployed coast guard cutters weighing more than 10,000 tonnes, the largest in the world. They cover maritime militia’s activities like harassing Vietnamese and other littoral fishermen from exercising their rights or defend China’s illegal fishing activities in the exclusive economic zones of other countries. Recently, they have forcefully snatched back a Chinese fishing vessel that had been detained by the Indonesian authorities for transgression.

Such provocative actions to forcefully lay down new rules on the ground need to be challenged, but using conventional air and naval assets will only lead to escalation. It is advisable to learn from China’s strategist himself in this context, Sun Tzu, who counsels that it is wise to attack an adversary’s strategy first before fighting him on the battlefield.

Therefore, both Vietnam and the Philippines must also concentrate on building up the capacity of respective coast guards and maritime administration departments with relevant assets like offshore patrol vessels (OPV) to secure the islands and exclusive economic zones. Operating independently in these areas inevitably hedges against China’s proclamation of South China Sea as its sovereign territory and requiring its consent to operate in.

Vietnam is inducting patrol boats furnished by local industries as well as depending on the pledge from the U.S. to provide 18 patrol boats. The Philippines contracted a Japanese company to build 10 patrol vessels on a low-interest loan offered by Japan’s government. It is also set to receive four boats from the U.S.

India should also take a proactive position and join its regional security partners in extending its current efforts in the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. India has built high level partnership programs to build the capacity of its neighboring Indian Ocean countries to ensure security of their exclusive economic zones. In the process, it delivered some of its OPVs to Sri Lanka. Recently, Mauritius became the first customer of India’s first locally built OPV Barracuda. India is now building two more for Sri Lanka. Additionally, Vietnam has contracted an Indian company to build four OPVs using the $100 million line of credit offered by the Indian government.

Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Image: Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)
Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)

The demand for these vessels will only grow as the strategic competition in the South China Sea escalates. India enjoys better political, historical, and security relations with the South East Asian countries, especially Vietnam. The Philippine government has underscored this relationship between India and Vietnam as the foundation for its own relations with India. Taking advantage of this situation not only improves India’s strategic depth in the region but also enhances its manufacturing capacity that is at the core of Make in India initiative.

The specific requirements like range, endurance, and armament depend on the customer countries. The more critical question at play is whether the regional security stakeholders are comfortable with the idea of upgunned coast guards along the South China Sea littoral.

The U.S. has forward deployed four of its Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore to tackle a variety of threats emanating in the shallow waters. The ships are smaller than a frigate but larger than an OPV in terms of sensor suites, armament, mission sets, and maintenance requirements. War simulations proved that upgunned LCS can cross into blue water domain with ease and complicate an adversary’s order of the battle.

Vietnam and the Philippines could specify higher endurance, better hull strength and advanced water cannons for their OPVs to defend proportionally against Chinese vessels. In addition to manufacturing ships, India should also train Vietnamese and Philippine forces on seamlessly integrating  intelligence from different assets for maritime defense.

Over time, a level of parity in the sub-conventional domain needs to be achieved and maintained to force China to either shift its strategy or escalate the situation into conventional domain whereupon the escalation dominance will shift to status quo countries.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Chinese 10,000 ton coast guard cutter, CCG 2901. (People’s Daily Online)