New Pentagon China Report Highlights the Rise of Beijing's Maritime Militia

Flypast of the Chengdu J-20 during the opening of Airshow China in Zhuhai in November 2016. Wikimedia Commons / Alert5

Pentagon experts have finally keyed in on one of the most important aspects of China's strategy to dominate the waterways of the Asia-Pacific.

Issued yesterday, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments contains a typically vast array of data, some publicly specified or confirmed for the first time. Among its 106 pages—arguably the most significant development is its unprecedented coverage of China’s maritime militia—the first official U.S. government assessment to call it out in public. This is a long overdue and welcome breakthrough: the shadowy but knowable force’s vanguard units are literally on the front lines of Beijing’s efforts to overpower its neighbors and advance its control over the South China Sea.

Together with the world’s largest Coast Guard, and with China’s Navy backstopping in an “overwatch” capacity, China’s maritime militia plays a central role in maritime activities designed to overwhelm or coerce an opponent through activities cannot be easily countered without escalating to war. The report terms this approach “low-intensity coercion in maritime disputes.” Leading elements of China’s maritime militia have already played frontline roles in manifold Chinese incidents and skirmishes with foreign mariners throughout the South China Sea. Such international-sea incidents of significant concern to the United States and its regional allies and partners include multiple contributions to furthering China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

China maritime-militia forces played a central role in the 1974 battle in which China seized the western Paracel Islands from Vietnam. More recently, as the report documents, they “played significant roles in . . . the 2011 harassment of Vietnamese survey vessels.” They harassed USNS Impeccable in international waters in 2009. They helped trigger the 2012 incident in which they ultimately supported other Chinese forces in seizing Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. They engaged in reconnaissance and sovereignty patrols during China’s February 2014 blockade of Philippine resupply of Second Thomas Shoal. They played the frontline role in the 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels from disputed waters surrounding China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s HYSY-981 oil rig.

The militia is a key component of China’s armed forces and its maritime subcomponent is the Third Sea Force of China. China’s maritime militia is a set of marine industry workers (typically fishermen) and their vessels trained, equipped, organized and commanded directly by the local military commands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These units typically answer to the PLA chain of command, and are certain to do so when activated for international-sea incidents pre-planned by Beijing. While most militiamen have civilian jobs, new units are emerging that appear to employ elite forces full-time as militarized professionals. Directed participation by China maritime-militia forces in international-sea incidents or provocations occurs under the PLA chain of command, and sometimes also under the temporary command of the Chinese maritime law-enforcement agencies.

Here’s why the Pentagon’s publicizing of China’s maritime-militia matters: it is strongest—and most effective—when it can lurk in the shadows. But the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute’s two-and-a-half-year study—and more than twenty articles, papers and briefings—reveals that there is more than enough open-source information available to expose China’s maritime militia for what it is: a state-organized, state-developed and state-controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities.

By revealing the maritime militia’s true nature and “calling it out” in public, the U.S. government can remove the force’s plausible deniability, reduce its room for maneuver, and reduce the chances that China’s leaders will employ it dangerously in future encounters with American and allied vessels at sea. The very few previous U.S. government-related statements were not top-level official assessments, and hence did not have the full force and influence of the U.S. government behind them. China’s maritime militia was mentioned by Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet; by Ronald O’Rourke in his Congressional Research Service report on Chinese maritime disputes; and by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which rightly recommended that the Department of Defense address this vital subject. But the Pentagon’s new report is the first official top-level assessment by the U.S. government to cover China’s maritime militia. It is extremely encouraging that the U.S. government has finally brought to bear the full force of its authority and its tremendous analytical capabilities to address this vital issue.

Unique Insights

Beyond its maritime-militia coverage, the report offers a treasure trove of other insights. Some areas, particularly broader strategic points and basic force-structure elements, are well known to PLA analysts outside the U.S. government but are conveniently compiled in a go-to source for many in Washington not normally focused on the subject. A number of specific points, however, are difficult—if not impossible—to corroborate or even learn through open sources. The report contains too many insights to enumerate them all here, and is best read in full—or at least skimmed directly. The following surveys some of the most important and interesting highlights from both categories.

Chinese military doctrine is increasing emphasis on preparing for a full range of potential contingencies, involving “maritime military struggle” and “winning informatized local wars” along China’s southeastern periphery—with Taiwan and scenarios related to the East China Sea and South China Sea foremost among them. Beijing, the report judges, “expects significant elements of a modern conflict to occur at sea.” At a lower level of intensity, Beijing seeks to strengthen its ability to safeguard its burgeoning overseas interests. To support such efforts, long-distance mobility operations, offensive sea-and-air operations, and a full spectrum of space-and-cyber operations are all accorded heightened emphasis.

To meet this and related goals, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping has ordered sweeping reorganization and reform of China’s armed forces that dwarfs even America’s previous Goldwater-Nichols transformation. Major organizational developments include reorganizing the Central Military Commission, establishing a Joint Operations Command Center, five theater commands—each oriented “toward a specific set of contingencies,” an Overseas Operations Office, a Joint Logistics Support Force, and unifying space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities under a Strategic Support Force. Demobilizing personnel—primarily from the world’s largest standing ground force and from noncombat positions across the PLA—is strengthening the PLA’s tooth-to-tail ratio and elevating the status of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF). Noncommissioned officers and civilians are replacing officers in some positions. PLA exercises are growing in scope, complexity and realism. In 2016, seventeen exercises were conducted with foreign partners.

To supply its forces, China has developed one of the world’s largest and most capable defense industries. It is producing numerous platforms and weapons systems while also researching a wide array of frontier technologies. In August 2016, for instance, China launched the world’s first experimental quantum communications satellite, which offers significant potential for cryptography and secure communications. It also continues to prioritize efforts in such pioneering fields as hypersonics and nanotechnology.

A secondary defense industrial benefit, arms exports, has lagged its domestic outfitting, but has considerable room for growth. About $20 billion in sales from 2011–15 made it the world’s fourth-largest arms supplier (albeit with $9 billion to regional countries, primarily Pakistan). Growing demand for armed unmanned aerial vehicles from China amid restrictions from other suppliers will likely pull the Middle East and North Africa ahead of sub-Saharan Africa as China’s second-largest arms-export market. Already, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have made purchases.

The largest navy in Asia (and—by ship numbers—in the world), the PLAN is rapidly refining and better equipping its forces. It continues to prioritize submarines and is outfitting many with YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and their variants. By the early 2020s, the Pentagon forecasts, China will begin building a next-generation Type 096 SSBN. Over the next decade, China will likely build a new Type 093B guided-missile nuclear-attack submarine, outfitted with land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). China is also strengthening its surface fleet significantly, drawing on a robust shipbuilding industry to series-produce three classes of warships simultaneously and placing particular emphasis on multiple missions and air defenses. Its Type 054D destroyer “has a multipurpose vertical launch system capable of launching ASCMs, SAMs [surface-to-air missiles], and anti-submarine missiles.” By 2020 a second aircraft carrier will likely join Liaoning, which itself will likely focus on training and fleet air defense missions. These two carriers, and others that join them in the future, will be escorted by the ten thousand ton Type 055 cruisers currently under construction.

The largest air force in Asia and the third largest in the world, China’s PLAAF has more than 2,700 aircraft and a growing variety of unmanned aerial vehicles. While it still relies on imported aeroengines and components, and is not expected to field a new generation long-range bomber until around 2025, the PLAAF has made tremendous progress. It “continues to modernize and is closing the gap rapidly with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities. This development is gradually eroding the significant technical advantage held by the United States.” Meanwhile, its decades-old but substantially redesigned H-6 bombers are equipped with improved turbofans and standoff weapons. The H-6G can carry up to four ASCMs for maritime missions, the H-6K six CJ-20 LACMs—with a combined range capable of reaching Guam. The PLAAF also boasts one of the world’s largest advanced long-range SAM systems. While not as advanced as many of China’s other world-class (ballistic and cruise) missile systems, they and early warning and fighter aircraft are part of an improving inventory that helps populate a strong and growing integrated air defense system that offers “credible” coverage out to just over 500 kilometers from China’s shores. Meanwhile, China is developing multiple layers of ballistic missile defenses, with its HQ-19 interceptor missile possibly slated to “fill the mid-tier.”

At the apex of Chinese aerospace capabilities, the PLA Rocket Force continues to field some of China’s most advanced and potent weapons systems, which are summarized by category in a useful table on page ninety-five. Of particular note, the DF-21D ASBM “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” The DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which China began fielding in 2016, “has a maximum range of 4,000 km,” sufficient to conduct a precision strike on Guam.

The South China Sea figures prominently into both Chinese activities and the report’s coverage. Last year, China landed a military transport aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef. It also landed civilian aircraft on its newly constructed airfields at its three largest Spratly Islands outposts—Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs. China is preparing the capacity to host a regiment of twenty-four fighters in reinforced hangars on each of these three augmented features. As has been determined by the Arbitral Tribunal, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, together with Hughes Reef, are below high tide in their natural state and hence “do not generate their own maritime entitlements.” The report contains annotated photos of all China’s seven Spratly outposts, on which it continues to develop a panoply of military-relevant facilities. Other assets particularly relevant to supporting such outposts in the South China Sea, or even seizing new features, are the PLAN Marine Corps, a growing array of amphibious vessels, and the AG600 large amphibious seaplane.

To address burgeoning overseas interests, China is increasing its overseas security capabilities, presence and access. The report underscores Chinese movement toward the Indian Ocean and beyond. It documents that a PLAN nuclear-powered attack submarine called on Karachi, Pakistan, in May 2016. To support such long-distance naval operations, China began construction of a military facility in Djibouti in February 2016 “and probably will complete it within the next year.” Additionally, to bolster supplies and intelligence support, China may pursue “a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLAN logistic facilities—probably collocated with commercial ports.” China will “most likely” seek “additional hubs,” however termed, “in countries in which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan.”

Despite the aforementioned developments and related concerns, the report documents in detail, Washington continues judicious military contacts and exchanges with Beijing. “Carefully tailored,” they are designed to further mutual interests, “manage and reduce risk,” and encourage transparency. Like its predecessors, the report takes pains to note positive Chinese security contributions, including eight years of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the largest number of personnel contributed by any permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the second greatest funding of UN peacekeeping operations over the past twelve months.

An Imperfect but Invaluable Contribution

Expecting perfection from a public government report of this nature is typically an exercise in frustration. Of greatest substantive significance, this year’s Pentagon report lacks many of the fascinating specifics on China’s space and counter-space activities found in the May 23, 2017, testimony of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats before the Senate Armed Services Committee. To address this disparity, the author obtained permission from noted space capabilities and law expert Michael J. Listner to share his observations on the subject:

China’s space and counter-space operations fall under its Strategic Support Force, which it established in 2015 to direct the PLA’s space, cyber and electronic warfare missions. While little information is publically available about the Strategic Support Force, its mission as related to outer space appears in accordance with the PLA’s view of outer space as a “commanding height,” which indicates that PLA doctrine sees outer space as a theater of war in support of its terrestrial military objectives and not the focal point of war itself. This perspective is only beginning to evolve in United States military doctrine.

According to the report, the PLA continues to be a prime motivator in the development of space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data collection, satellite-communication capacity, satellite-navigation (Beidou Phase-1 and Phase 2) constellations, meteorology assets, human spaceflight, robotic space exploration, and ground infrastructure for spacecraft launch manufacture and data communications through satellite systems similar to the United States Tracking Data and Rely Satellite system. This illustrates that China’s civil space program continues to be solidly linked to—and subservient to—the PLA.

Surprisingly, the report only briefly addresses China’s growing counter-space capabilities. It merely mentions that China is “developing a variety of counter-space capabilities designed to degrade and deny the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict.” What is perplexing is why the report again avoids the term ASAT or fails to elaborate on the capabilities being developed; i.e., hard-kill and soft-kill ASAT capabilities, especially since the 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment from the Director of National Intelligence specifically mentions that China (and Russia) “both will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce US military effectiveness.” The DNI report then specifically addresses the types of ASATs being developed. That the Pentagon’s report again fails to specifically mention “ASATs,” much less its development of an operational ASAT capability, demands further inquiry.

It a pattern plaguing many reports produced through bureaucratic processes, it has proven impossible to keep all information in the Pentagon China report fully up-to-date. For example, the report states that the Burma-China oil pipeline “is not yet fully operational,” when in fact commercial operations began about two months ago. Moreover, in surveying the sixteenth annual Pentagon China reports issued since 2002, one can often find typos, redundancies, or slight ambiguities in verb tense—the latter of which can make the exact status of a new weapons system seem unclear. Finally, the report’s judgements are not footnoted or otherwise explained. Readers are not told how exactly the Pentagon calculated China’s defense budget at $180 billion for 2016 instead of the $144.3 billion that Beijing announced (itself already fourteen times that of Taipei).

That said, the 2017 edition offers few other issues with which to quibble—save for the perennial reality that it would always be nice to have still further information. Unlike some of its predecessors, the report correctly locates what is now the Eastern Theater Navy Headquarters in Ningbo, not Dinghai. Perhaps most importantly, it finally documents the existence of China’s maritime militia, which has played a frontline role in China’s sovereignty advances in the South China Sea since at least 1974. As usual, China’s official government spokespeople and allied media such as the state mouthpieces and the Global Times rail against the report for shining light on Chinese activities. But they offer few, if any, substantive challenges to the invaluable facts that it brings to the discussion. In this, the report makes a contribution worth far more than the $97,000 spent on its production. To the extent that Beijing declines to be transparent about significant military and security developments of importance to its neighbors and the world beyond, it is vital that the public everywhere is offered a report that does so—backed by the full knowledge and authority of the U.S. government.

Andrew Erickson is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Image: Flypast of the Chengdu J-20 during the opening of Airshow China in Zhuhai in November 2016. Wikimedia Commons / Alert5