The Buzz

Beware of China's "Little Blue Men" in the South China Sea

While Russia has employed “Little Green Men” surreptitiously in Crimea, China uses its own “Little Blue Men” to support Near Seas claims. As the U.S. military operates near Beijing’s artificially-built South China Sea (SCS) features and seeks to prevent Beijing from ejecting foreign claimants from places like Second Thomas Shoal, it may well face surveillance and harassment from China’s maritime militia. Washington and its allies and partners must therefore understand how these irregular forces are commanded and controlled, before they are surprised and stymied by them.

China has long organized its civilian mariners into maritime militia, largely out of necessity. Recent years have seen a surge of emphasis on maritime militia building and increasing this unique force’s capabilities; however it is difficult to ascertain who or what entity within China’s government has ordered such emphasis. One can point to Xi Jinping’s visit to the Tanmen Maritime Militia in 2013, after which maritime militia building oriented toward the SCS has seen growth in places like Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi. Yet local militia training and organization plans prior to this date had already emphasized the training of maritime militia units.

Unit Composition and Organization:

China’s militia has two major subcomponents: an “ordinary” reserve of registered male citizens akin to the U.S. Selective Service pool, and a “primary” force more readily mobilized to respond to various contingencies. The primary force receives dedicated resources, troops demobilized from active duty, and training. Within the primary force, maritime militia units—formed solely at the tactical level of organization—are smaller and more specialized on average than their land-based counterparts. Within the maritime militia, a small but growing elite set of units are the ones most likely to be deployed on more sophisticated operations that involve monitoring, displaying presence in front of, or opposing foreign actors. They do so in part by supporting China’s navy and coast guard in such efforts. Some cities with large mobilization potential—i.e., a large maritime industry or fishing community—will form battalion-sized units. Most localities create company-sized units, however. These companies are divided into platoons and squads, with the smallest grouping based on each individual vessel.

Chain of Command:

Militia management begins broadly at the General Staff Department’s Mobilization Department, which oversees and formulates regulations for nationwide militia work. Uniquely a local military force, the maritime militia falls within the hierarchical People’s Liberation Army (PLA) army local force command structure that runs through all levels of local military organs. As stipulated in China’s “Militia Work Regulations,” real command of the militia begins at the Provincial Military District (MD) level and below. The thousands of county- and grassroots-level People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD) established in county-level cities, townships, villages, and maritime enterprises (fishing companies, shipyards, etc.) directly execute the organizing and training of maritime militia. Grassroots-level PAFDs report to county-level PAFDs, which report to Military Sub-district (MSD) Headquarters, themselves reporting to MD Headquarters. Maritime militia building also receives attention by Military Region-level Command, albeit in a supervisory fashion. Higher levels of military commands likely view the maritime militia as a subset of military organization within the broader ecosystem of local militia, with particular focus on broader mobilization efforts. Additionally, militia battalions and companies form party branches to ensure Party control at the grassroots levels.

It must be emphasized that maritime militia command authority resides within multiple entities, including both the local military organs (MD, MSD, PAFD) and their government/party counterparts. This is referred to as “双重领导” in Chinese, connoting the “dual-leadership” system by the local military and government’s principal leaders. It is thus common to see a city party secretary acting in his role as first-party secretary of the local military party committee overseeing the PAFD’s efforts at managing the maritime militia. An easily visible example: Sansha City’s mayor/party secretary Xiao Jie and his military counterpart Commander Cai Xihong both attended the founding ceremony of Sansha City’s Maritime Militia Company. “Dual-leadership” is further reinforced by the fact that local governments fund militia construction.