Numbers Matter: China's Three 'Navies' Each Have the World's Most Ships

China Coast Guard vessels patrol past a Chinese fishing vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, April 5, 2017. Reuters/Erik De Castro

Numerical superiority allows China’s second and third sea forces to flood the maritime gray zone in ways that its neighbors, as well as the United States, may find very hard to counter.

As a friend’s five-year-old puts it, “China has three navies: the regular navy, the police navy and the sneaky navy.” Each of these three sea forces is the world’s largest of its type by number of ships—at least by some measures. China is truly a maritime power in its own right, and its sea forces’ numbers matter in important ways. In maritime “gray zone” operations, Beijing employs its enormous coast guard and maritime militia to further its disputed Yellow, East and South China Sea sovereignty claims using coercion short of warfare. This article, which is part one in a series, will focus on these quantitatively superior second and third sea forces.

More formally, China’s Armed Forces comprise three major organizations, each with a maritime subcomponent. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contains the PLA Navy (PLAN); the People’s Armed Police (PAP) increasingly leads China’s Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) forces, including the China Coast Guard (CCG); and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) contains a growing proportion of seagoing units. The CCG and PAFMM, clearly the world’s most numerous by any logical measure, are the focus of this article.

In power and sophistication, the PAFMM is far less capable than the CCG—which, in turn, is far less capable than the PLAN. The PLAN has formidable firepower; most PLAN ships have longer-range antiship cruise missiles than U.S. Navy ships possess. The CCG is an actual threat to both the U.S. Navy and the sea forces of all China’s maritime neighbors, and has an extremely substantial law-enforcement capability on a par with that of the U.S. and Japanese coast guards. Viewed through this unforgiving comparative lens, the PAFMM is at best a harassing force with questionable legal authority. Yet it has already killed Vietnamese citizens, helped to seize Vietnamese- and Philippine-claimed features, and harassed U.S. Navy vessels.

All three sea forces are useful tools for Beijing, when employed against different opponents and in different ways. This is no theoretical abstraction. China has already used its second and third sea forces in manifold gray-zone operations against vessels from its maritime neighbors, as well as the United States. Today, Chinese sea forces are enveloping the Philippines-claimed Sandy Cay shoal (near Thitu Island), around which China has sustained a presence of at least two PAFMM vessels since August 2017. Other publicly documented examples of PAFMM employment from research conducted by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) over the past three-plus years include China’s 2015 maneuvers around USS Lassen, the 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels from disputed waters surrounding China’s state-owned HYSY-981 oil rig, participation in the 2014 blockade of Second Thomas Shoal and 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, the harassment of USNS Howard O. Lorenzen (2014) and Impeccable (2009), and the 1974 seizure of the Western Paracel Islands from Vietnam and subsequent harassment of various Vietnamese government/survey vessels.

As Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee, “Across the South China Sea, China’s air force, navy, coast guard, and maritime militia all maintain a robust presence. Routine patrols and exercises ensure Chinese forces are in and around all the features, not just the ones they occupy. China routinely challenges the presence of non-Chinese forces, including other claimant nations and especially the U.S., often overstating its authority and insisting foreign forces either stay away or obtain Chinese permission to operate.”

The PLAN already has the world’s largest number of ships by some measures. According to the Pentagon’s 2017 China Military Power Report, “The PLAN is the largest navy in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.” By 2020, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence forecasts that the PLAN will have 313-342 warships. Meanwhile, according to its official website, as of February 22, 2018, the U.S. Navy has 280 “deployable battle force ships.” Since the PLAN is more difficult to compare to its clear qualitative superior and closest quantitative competitor—the U.S. Navy—it will be the focus of a follow-on article.

To be sure, numbers aren’t everything. Depending on what capabilities are under discussion, making ship-by-ship tallies can be an apples-to-mandarin-oranges comparison. While the capability gap is narrowing rapidly in some warfare areas, for example, Chinese navy and coast guard ships lag behind their American counterparts in overall individual capabilities. Whether or not a coast guard vessel has a helicopter deck makes a big difference. And there remain some specific areas where China does not lead in numbers, let alone capabilities. The CCG lags its American and Japanese counterparts badly in both quality and quantity of air assets. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operates 201 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft: fifty-five airplanes and 146 helicopters. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) operates seventy-four airframes: twenty-six airplanes and forty-eight helicopters. With only fifty-plus helicopter-capable ships, and far fewer helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the CCG lags far behind in aviation—although it will likely acquire additional maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters to remedy this.

Here’s why China’s ship numbers matter. First, in contrast to its rudimentary Cold War shipbuilding, in recent years China has prioritized quality over quantity. Over the past two decades, has replaced rudimentary Soviet-style rust buckets with far more sophisticated models. Echoing the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence’s 2015 PLAN report, Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O’Rourke explains, “In some cases (such as submarines and coastal patrol craft), total numbers of platforms actually decreased over the past 20 years or so, but aggregate capability nevertheless increased because a larger number of older and obsolescent platforms have been replaced by a smaller number of much more modern and capable new platforms.” This is particularly the case with the navy, naturally China’s most advanced sea force technologically. Moreover, China is the clear global leader in naval ballistic missilery, a new form of naval warfare that the U.S. has just begun to explore. A similar process of growing leaner and meaner is playing out in China’s coast guard and maritime militia as well. Of China’s three sea forces, its coast guard has burgeoned most rapidly in numbers. Even so, recently developed classes of CCG vessels have also grown markedly in size and speed; as well as firepower, with many armed with thirty-millimeter and seventy-six millimeter guns.

China’s shipbuilding juggernaut, powered by what until very recently was indisputably the world’s fastest-growing multitrillion-dollar economy, has allowed the rapid modernization of all three sea forces even as absolute numbers of modern vessels are growing substantially as well. One reason China has been able to build modernize all three forces so expeditiously is that—unlike America’s military-focused shipbuilding industry—China’s massive commercial shipbuilding industry subsidizes overhead costs for construction of all three sea forces’ vessels. Chinese CCG vessel construction is thus both economical and efficient. Commercial off-the-shelf drivetrains and electronics, together with lack of complex combat systems and weapons, facilitate rapid assembly, with multiple units built simultaneously. According to contract and media details, typical total construction time (from start to commissioning) is twelve to eighteen months for a large patrol ship (over one thousand tons), and nine to twelve months for a smaller patrol craft or patrol combatant (under one thousand tons).

When it comes to deployment, even the most advanced ship simply cannot be in more than one place at once. Numbers matter significantly when it comes to maintaining presence and influence in vital seas. This is particularly true regarding the growing U.S.-China strategic competition, in which Washington plays a distant away game. USCG cutters are focused near American waters, far from any international disputes, while the U.S. Navy is dispersed around the world, much of its fleet separated from maritime East Asia by responsibilities, geography and time. By contrast, all three major Chinese sea forces remain focused first and foremost on the contested “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East and South China Seas) and their immediate approaches, close to China’s homeland, land-based air and missile coverage, and supply lines.

Beyond strength in numbers, China is pursuing synergy in numbers. China’s second and third sea forces are helping to operationalize a naval strategy that has evolved from “near-coast defense” to a combination of “near-seas defense” and “far seas protection.” Beijing’s maritime force posture is shifting from a coordinated three-sea-force focus on regional seas to supplementing that ongoing effort with a further division of labor in which PAFMM and CCG roles and missions have expanded to backfill behind the PLAN as it significantly increases its overseas missions and presence. Over the past decade, this has allowed the PLAN to reduce its small patrol craft—thereby allowing PLAN and CCG quantitative buildup to make PLAN numbers count even more qualitatively.

Additionally, China’s coast-guard and maritime-militia vessels themselves offer platforms for rapid upgrades in certain hardware. Consider, for example, China’s potential to exploit its broad-based development emphasis on unmanned vehicles to equip numerous CCG and PAFMM vessels with UAVs and UUVs. Even if capabilities remain modest in certain areas, the sheer number of platforms offers the possibility of a formidable sensor network dispersed across critical areas of the Near Seas.

In building the world’s largest coast guard, China has achieved an impressive increase in its maritime capabilities. It has leveraged massive capacity for building all sizes of patrol ships, cost relief from commercial construction profits, and domestic production of most systems (including engines and electronics) to field an impressive number and variety of ships specialized for different roles and operating areas. New CCG ships capable of long-distance operations in higher seas, the largest capable of operating globally, could permit extended deployments beyond East Asia (e.g., for antipiracy or sea-lane escort). CCG modernization and expansion affords China presence and influence to further its East and South China Sea sovereignty claims, while maintaining both domestic and international law enforcement capability regionally.

Ongoing reorganization makes China’s formal Coast Guard numbers hard to extract precisely from China’s overall MLE numbers. For instance, the PAP was subordinated to the Central Military Commission (CMC) on January 1, 2018, presumably together with a large portion of China’s civil maritime forces—but Beijing has not revealed how many cutters and personnel are engaged in fisheries regulation, oil-spill response and other duties not core to the PAP. Because vessels can be shifted among different MLE organizations, it is best to take a broad approach in calculating CCG force size. In any case, China’s coast guard is clearly the world’s largest by a sizeable margin.

Today, China’s coast guard has 225 ships weighing over five hundred tons that are capable of operating offshore, and another 1,050-plus confined to closer waters, for a total of over 1,275 ships—more hulls than the coast guards of all its regional neighbors combined. In 2020, the CCG is projected to have a total of 1,300-plus ships: 260 large vessels capable of operating offshore, many capable of operating worldwide, and another 1,050-plus smaller vessels confined to closer waters. From 2005–20, this represents a fifteen-year net increase of four hundred total coast guard ships; and among them of 202 additional ships capable of operating offshore, representing 350 percent growth in the latter category. With a length of 165 meters (541 feet), a beam of twenty-plus meters (sixty-five-plus feet), and at ten-thousand-plus tons full load, China’s two Zhaotou-class cutters are the world’s largest coast-guard vessels and displace more than most modern naval destroyers.

In terms of qualitative improvement, China has now replaced virtually all its older, less capable large patrol ships. It is applying lessons learned from scrutinizing the “gold standard” U.S. and Japanese coast guards, as well as the CCG’s increasing experience operating farther offshore for longer periods. The resulting new ship features include helicopters, interceptor boats, deck guns, high-capacity water cannons and improved seakeeping.

Most newly built CCG ships have helicopter decks, some with hangars (although the CCG has very few helicopters). Many new also have quick-launch boat ramps on the fantail, allowing for rapid deployment of interceptor boats. These include roughly ten-meter-long fast interceptor boats with twin outboard engines enabling high speeds for VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure) law enforcement against fishing vessels or other ships. A number of new ships have thirty-millimeter guns mounted, with a few of the larger ships carrying seventy-six-millimeter main guns. Most recently constructed CCG ships now have high-output water cannons mounted high on their superstructure. The 2014 HYSY-981 oil rig standoff demonstrated their utility as they damaged bridge-mounted equipment on Vietnamese vessels and forced water down their exhaust funnels (although the Vietnamese have since modified their own ships to protect from such actions and installed their own high-capacity water cannons). Internet photographs indicate that many CCG ships built within the last five years have a data-link antenna (such as the HN-900) similar to those on PLAN vessels and to the U.S. Navy’s Link 11. Older CCG ships are now being retrofitted with them.

One hallmark of CCG modernization in recent years has been the clear specialization of ships and craft toward particular missions. Moreover, China’s massive shipbuilding industry—and, presumably, shipbuilding budget—have allowed the CCG to focus on a variety of designs oriented toward specific requirements, rather than building “jack-of-all-trades” ships that were more flexible but less capable of specific functions. However, all these ships and craft remain highly capable of acting in other roles, particularly those related to promoting sovereignty in disputed South and East China Sea areas.

These CCG details come from in-depth open-source research by the author and U.S. Navy analysts Joshua Hickey and Henry Holst. Presented at CMSI’s 2017 conference on “China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations,” it will be published in chapter format in a forthcoming Naval Institute–edited volume, the seventh in CMSI’s “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development” series.

The world’s other leading coast guards, those of the United States and Japan, are still more operationally capable than China’s, but they clearly have fewer ships. By comparison, using its own official metrics, the USCG’s 40,992 active-duty personnel currently crew 243 cutters, vessels that are sixty-five feet or more in length, which meets the USCG’s legal definition of a “ship” requiring a twenty-four-hour watch. This length demarcation of roughly twenty meters also mirrors international norms. For the USCG, cutters eighty-seven feet long or longer—from patrol cutters to ice breakers—conduct offshore missions. USCG personnel also operate 1,650 “boats” less than sixty-five feet long, which “usually operate near shore, on inland waterways, or attached to cutters.” Many of these are small harbor-patrol boats that mostly operate on rivers—and hence are not part of America’s second sea force. Moreover, China has more than twice America’s total length of navigable rivers, canals and other inland bodies of water: 110,000 kilometers vs. 41,009 kilometers. The MLE boats patrolling China’s inland waterways are considerably more numerous than those of the U.S. Coast Guard patrolling waterways in America. If non-seagoing vessels were similarly counted in the CCG’s fleet total, therefore, it would likewise be substantially larger than that of the USCG’s fleet total, even with all of its sub-sixty-five-foot boats included.

As of April 1, 2017, the JCG’s 13,744 personnel operate 455 vessels and craft. These include 131 patrol vessels (roughly equivalent to USCG cutters/“ships”) and 238 patrol craft (roughly equivalent to USCG “boats”). Rounding out the fleet are a variety of specialized ships: sixty-three special guard and rescue craft, thirteen hydrographic survey vessels, seven lighthouse service vessels and three training boats.

As its third sea force, China has the world’s largest maritime militia. It is virtually the only one charged with involvement in sovereignty disputes: only Vietnam, one of the very last countries politically and bureaucratically similar to China, is known to have a similar force with a similar mission. This is arguably a product of its their political system: other countries don’t use a maritime militia, because only authoritarian countries could possibly get away with deploying such a force while attempting to shroud it in “plausible deniability.” As my CMSI colleague Conor M. Kennedy has found through in-depth open-source research, the maritime militias of China and Vietnam were originally organized and tasked similarly as elements of their respective nations’ armed forces.

Hanoi’s detailed 1999 “Law on Militia and Self-Defense Forces” states that “Militia and self-defense forces are mass armed forces not detached from production and work and constitute a part of the people’s armed forces of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. . . . Marine militia and sell-defense force means a force within the core militia and self-defense force organized in coastal communes, island communes and in agencies and organizations with vessels operating at sea to perform tasks on Vietnam’s sea areas.” Article 8 states that “Tasks of militia and self-defense forces” include “To stand ready for combat, to combat and render combat services to defend their localities and workplaces; to collaborate with border guard, navy and marine police units and other forces in defending the national sovereignty and border security and the sovereignty and sovereign rights on Vietnam’s sea areas.” As for their structure, “In coastal and island communes, marine militia squads or platoons shall be organized . . . Agencies and organizations shall organize sell-defense [sic] squads, platoons, companies or battalions. Those with vessels operating at sea shall organize marine self-defense squads, platoons, flotillas or fleets.”

This content is similar to that of China’s Regulations on Militia Work, promulgated by the State Council and CMC on December 24, 1990 to replace the previous regulations of August 1978, and implemented on January 1, 1991. Article 33 states that “Militia organizations in land-sea frontier defense areas and other key combat readiness areas should, in accordance with the requirements of higher-level military organs, carry out joint defense with the PLA and the People’s Armed Police forces stationed in the area.” China’s PAFMM is a set of mariners and vessels that are trained, equipped and organized directly by the PLA’s local military commands. While at sea, these units typically answer to the PLA chain of command, and are certain to do so when activated for missions. In doing so, China is taking its third sea force to a level unmatched by any other country—even Vietnam.

That top-level officials from both countries have visited their respective leading sovereignty-supporting fishing groups demonstrates the importance that they accord these forces. The context in which they have done so, however, suggests Chinese qualitative and quantitative superiority. In April 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company on the first anniversary of its frontline participation in the Scarborough Shoal incident, in which PAFMM forces supported CCG vessels in seizing the resource-rich feature from the Philippines. The following year, the Tanmen Maritime Militia contributed to the defense of China’s HYSY-981 oil rig against Vietnamese efforts to pressure its removal from disputed waters from May 2 to July 15, 2014. That July, in Danang, Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang visited “twenty-five fishing vessel owners who are participating in . . . protecting sovereignty over the Paracels” and “resolutely fought for the withdrawal” of China’s 981 oil rig. He conferred gifts on the owner of fishing vessel ĐNa 90152, which had been rammed and sunk on May 26, 2014, by its Chinese counterparts, as one of up to two dozen Vietnamese vessels reportedly damaged.

The HYSY-981 oil-rig standoff was arguably a strategic problem for China, because Vietnam was able to impose a cost on Chinese behavior that would make any drilling in the rig’s location economically unviable. As China’s largest and most sophisticated Three-Sea-Force operation to date, it was also potentially an opportunity for further operational learning on China’s part. Nevertheless, the critical importance of the event to Vietnam’s interests, coupled with Vietnam’s inability to match China at sea despite its every incentive to do so, strongly suggests Chinese qualitative and quantitative superiority over Vietnam’s coast guard and maritime militia.

Available Chinese and Vietnamese sources agree that the latter was badly overmatched by a two-to-one ratio. China maintained 110–115 vessels around the rig in a cordon of roughly ten nautical miles. It mustered and maintained roughly twice the maritime presence of Vietnam, leaving the latter no way to penetrate the defensive layers enveloping the rig (without the use of deadly force, at least). Four PLAN vessels reportedly participated, as did thirty-five to forty Coast Guard vessels. The more than forty PAFMM vessels included twenty-nine from Sanya, ten from Tanmen and others, from such locations as Dongfang City.

The fact that Vietnam was left so far behind at sea in an area so close to its ports and supply lines, concerning a matter of such national interest that it had every incentive to divert vessels to safeguard, strongly suggests that its second and third sea forces simply cannot match China’s. These days, in an important and apparently growing Sino-Vietnamese disparity, maritime militia development and employment appears to be less important to Vietnamese than Chinese maritime doctrine. Unlike China’s flourishing multirole PAFMM, there is little evidence that Vietnam’s maritime militia units retain major functional use today beyond apparent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions. Like China, Vietnam is rapidly expanding its official Fisheries Resource Administration and coast guard fleets. Both have roughly doubled in size over the past five years, in a clear attempt to address China’s maritime expansion. During this time, Vietnam’s coast guard has received several dozen new large patrol ships and many new-build patrol craft built. Additionally, it is receiving U.S. Hamilton-class cutters. And Vietnam’s navy is perhaps even further behind China’s, both qualitatively and quantitatively. That Vietnam can grow and employ its fleets so earnestly and still be so far behind China is additional testimony to Beijing’s ongoing numerical overmatch at sea.

China’s maritime militia draws on the world’s largest fishing fleet, incorporating through formal registration a portion of its thousands of fishing vessels, and the thousands of people who work on them as well as in other marine industries. The PAFMM recruits from the world’s largest fishing fleet. According to China’s 2016 Ocean Yearbook and 2016 Fisheries Yearbook, China’s fishing industry employs 20,169,600 workers, mostly in traditional fishing practices, industry processing and coastal aquaculture. Those who actually fish “on the water” number 1,753,618. They operate 187,200 “marine fishing vessels.”

Precise PAFMM personnel numbers are difficult to calculate from open sources, but a rough estimate, within an order of magnitude, can be established by collating data from reports on PAFMM units in the provinces. My research on Hainan Province with Conor Kennedy has identified thirty-one PAFMM units, all of which would be considered fendui or tactical-level-unit organizations (battalion, company, platoon, squad). In addition to the thirty-one units identified, there are also many other smaller militia elements on Hainan Island and stationed at outposts and PRC-occupied features in the South China Sea. One can notionally estimate the total number of personnel and vessels in Hainan’s PAFMM force by assuming that the thirty-one units are each the rough median size of a PAFMM company (approximately 120 personnel and ten fishing vessels). This would yield a very rough notional estimate of 3,720 personnel and 310 vessels in Hainan’s PAFMM alone.

PAFMM units from more economically developed provinces with large-scale fishing industries may be comparatively greater in number and scale than those in Hainan, which lags some other coastal provinces economically. Kennedy and I have identified sixty-five PAFMM units in Zhejiang Province, more than twice the number of units they have located in Hainan. In Zhejiang, for instance, one PAFMM “unit” from Ningbo’s Xiangshan District reportedly has 182 fishing vessels in its maritime-militia reconnaissance network. Amazingly, some Chinese interlocutors have nevertheless falsely denied the existence of PAFMM in the East China Sea; just as some Chinese interlocutors have also falsely claimed that the PLAN has no connections with the PAFMM. In addition to Hainan and Zhejiang, China has six other maritime provinces: Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Shandong, Hebei and Liaoning. The province-sized Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and the tier-one municipalities of Shanghai and Tianjin, round out the mainland coastline. However tallied, the PAFMM personnel and forces of China’s many coastal localities are numerous indeed.

Situated atop this enormous pyramid, the leading PAFMM units matter most, since they are the ones developed for, and entrusted with, participation in international sea incidents. The boats these leading units operate are largely new-constructed using fairly typical and traditional designs and equipment by international standards—regular fishing trawlers in terms of capability, save for their reinforced hulls, water cannons and, reportedly in some cases, weapons and ammunition lockers. There is nothing advanced about them compared to any other modern fishing boats operated anywhere else in the world. Indeed, many actual fishing boats in other countries are far more technologically advanced than any of the PAFMM boats, in terms of drivetrain, hull design and seakeeping—let alone actual fishing capabilities. What distinguishes leading PAFMM vessels are their water cannons and sovereign employment, aspects that could be added to most fishing boats around the world. As shiny new fishing boats with strong spraying and ramming capability, however, they nevertheless improve upon the smaller, wooden, less electronically equipped vessels that even the most advanced PAFMM units previously possessed. Moreover, in the matchups that matter operationally, they are typically significantly superior to those that China’s less affluent neighboring countries’ fishermen often still possess. Both Vietnamese and Philippine fishing vessels tend to be smaller and less capable than their Chinese counterparts, not to mention the PAFMM’s latest vessels.

It is possible to tally each leading PAFMM unit’s newest, largest ships. Tanmen’s Maritime Militia, for instance, has twenty-nine new five-hundred-ton vessels. In an example of growing emphasis on larger motherships, Danzhou’s Maritime Militia has sent thirty hundred-plus-ton trawlers led by a four-thousand-ton command and supply ship and a 1,500-ton cargo ship on a forty-day trip to the Spratly fishing grounds.

While most militiamen work their regular civilian jobs when not activated for PAFMM missions, new units are emerging that appear to employ better-trained crews full-time as militarized professionals. Hainan’s top unit, Sansha City’s Maritime Militia, is China’s leading known militarized professional PAFMM unit. It boasts eighty-four new, relatively large advanced ships (a number corroborated on page 56 of the Pentagon’s 2017 China Report as well as by a Chinese official with whom I have spoken directly). While their designs are similar to those of many other similar fishing boats worldwide, they are purpose-built for the PAFMM. As such, they have powerful water cannons. They also have prominent hull side-ribbing for protection when coming alongside other boats. As online photos reveal, PAFMM boats often berth in large groups tied to each other, during which hull ribbing protects them from damaging each other. These large purpose-built vessels thus have water cannons and external rails ideal for spraying and ramming interlopers. Most importantly, they don’t often fish.

Ultimately, how and to what extent numbers matter is specific to context. The PAFMM is not a threat to the U.S. Navy in any physical sense. A single Arleigh Burke–class destroyer could annihilate the entire Sansha PAFMM force with little difficulty if so directed. A Vietnamese Gepard-class frigate could do the same. Numbers matter greatly as long as nobody is shooting, but firing on the PAFMM would deprive it of much of its ability to harass. That is the weakness of a maritime militia (together with any operations conducted by a motley crew of part-time militiamen/part-time illegal fishermen as opposed to members of the full-time professionalized and militarized elite). Nevertheless, to date the PAFMM has been effective against Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen, with the PLAN in overwatch to ensure that their respective navies do not come to their aid. And it has even gotten away with harassing U.S. Navy vessels in the East and South China Seas without penalties of any kind.

Thus far, China has been winning in the maritime “gray zone,” with no sign that opponents—including the United States—are willing to fire on its second and third sea forces to render them critically vulnerable. In peacetime today, therefore, numbers matter at sea. And China has the numbers on its side. It matters that each of China’s three sea forces has the world’s most ships. Chinese doctrine recognizes this, and China’s cost-effective shipbuilding industry enables it to capitalize on this. Numerical superiority allows China’s second and third sea forces to flood the maritime gray zone in ways that its neighbors, as well as the United States, may find very hard to counter. Understanding this challenge confronting maritime East Asia is a crucial first step in addressing it. But far more is needed, and fast. The waves of history are relentless, and wait for no one.

Furthermore, as the second article in this series will discuss, China’s first sea force—its navy—is achieving some superior numbers of its own.

Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He runs www.andrewerickson.com and co-manages www.ChinaSignPost.com.

Image: China Coast Guard vessels patrol past a Chinese fishing vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, April 5, 2017. Reuters/Erik De Castro