As the South China Sea heats up, one of Beijing’s most important tools—its Maritime Militia or “Little Blue Men,” roughly equivalent at sea to Putin’s “Little Green Men” on land—offers it major rewards while threatening the U.S. and other potential opponents with major risks. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague announces its rulings on the Philippines-initiated maritime legal case with China on July 12—likely rejecting some key bases for excessive Chinese claims in the South China Sea—the Maritime Militia will offer a tempting tool for Beijing to try to teach Manila (and other neighbors) a lesson while frustrating American ability to calm troubled waters. This major problem with significant strategic implications is crying out for greater attention, and effective response. Accordingly, this article puts China’s Maritime Militia under the spotlight to explain what it is, why it matters and what to do about it.
To promote its disputed claims to features and maritime zones with increasing assertiveness, China is employing not one but three major sea forces—a potent three-pronged trident. In addition to what will soon be the world’s second-largest blue-water navy, and what is already the world’s largest blue-water coast guard, Beijing wields the world’s largest maritime militia, whose leading units are military-controlled forces trolling for territory. Most usefully in the peacetime coercion Beijing hopes to exclusively employ to advance its claims, China’s Maritime Militia remains the least recognized and understood of its sea forces. That needs to change—immediately.
Last October, when destroyer USS Lassen passed near Subi Reef, built up by Beijing in the Spratlys, merchant ships including fishing vessels maneuvered around it, having apparently anticipated its approach. China opposes such freedom of navigation operations categorically. In the future, to turn up the heat, while attempting to preserve plausible deniability and exploit perceived limitations in U.S. rules of engagement, China may employ Maritime Militia vessels more assertively to harass—and even attempt to thwart—such operations. Chinese propagandists might preemptively flood the airwaves with a misleading narrative of selectively edited footage of “civilian fishermen” being “unjustly attacked.” Leading People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) scholar and former deputy naval attaché to the United States Sr. Capt. Zhang Junshe seemed to be laying possible groundwork for just such a (mis)portrayal when he told Global Times that:
“waters adjacent to the Spratly Archipelago are the traditional fishing grounds of Chinese fishermen. For an American warship to barge into the adjacent waters constituted a threat to the normal operations of Chinese fishermen. The displacement of Chinese fishing vessels is small, and they have a shallow draft. They cannot withstand a collision. Americans show no remorse for their own actions or talk about the threat that a 10,000-ton warship represents for Chinese fishermen. Instead they hype up the ‘harassment’ of Chinese Maritime Militia. They are totally off base. There is absolutely no connection to the Maritime Militia.”
Yet, as of today, the U.S. government has demonstrated neither public awareness of the problem nor offered authoritative information to dispel such propaganda. Absent further preparations, this inaction could leave U.S. decisionmakers in a difficult position indeed.
No ordinary fishermen, these! Chinese officials are insulting foreign intelligence, likely in all senses of the word. During Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Regular Press Conference on April 7, 2016, when asked, “Is China using the country’s fishing fleet to assert its claim over relevant disputed waters?” he retorted flatly, “There is no such thing as what you said.” Regardless of why Lu responded as he did, on February 2, 2016, China Daily published (and China Military Online reposted) a detailed article that clearly acknowledged precisely such a role for China’s Maritime Militia. “As the People’s Liberation Army upgrades its navy, commissioning dozens of new ships under a watchful global eye, a less noticed force, China’s Maritime Militia, is also improving its operational capability,” it reported. “Most of the maritime militia is made up of local fishermen.” This was followed by an unofficial article on March 7, 2016, in the South China Morning Post, quoting an important Chinese official and a well-published Chinese expert concerning the use of “fishing vessels” to uphold Beijing’s “maritime rights and interests.”
Still more blatant dissembling to a reporter occurred early last month in Tanmen township, a national model for other seaports to emulate since Xi Jinping’s official visit in 2013. There, foreign reporters witnessed a contingent of forty to fifty fatigue-clad militiamen drilling—possibly appearing somewhat similar to this photograph.
A local propaganda official told them that the uniformed trainees were “part of a film crew.” Wang Shumao, the Tanmen Militia’s deputy commander and the leader of its front-line involvement in both China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 and the HYSY-981 oil rig incident of 2014, “denied knowing anything about the militia.” Wang further claimed that his deeply tanned comrades were simply fishermen who “chose to wear camouflage to protect themselves from the sun.” Whatever its future plans, China clearly has something to hide.
Fortunately for open-source analysts, China can be surprisingly transparent, especially in Chinese. Accordingly, the development and employment of Maritime Militia units appear designed to enhance asymmetry perceived favorable to China and to increase Beijing’s initiative—both at the expense of American and other forces. This is no idle speculation. They are well-substantiated policies expressed in authoritative Chinese government- and military-affiliated publications and evidenced in actual Chinese activities.
Singular Sea Force, Real Role in Skirmishes
Some other countries—including the United States—have modest maritime militias to assist with law enforcement, evacuations, disaster recovery, anti-terrorism, and defense of undisputed territory and port facilities. But Beijing doesn’t stop there. Rather, it is virtually the only nation to have—within its massive, expanding military—a growing set of elite irregular sea forces to harass foreign vessels and conduct other assertive activities, such as ramming, to advance contested island or maritime claims. Only Vietnam is known to have similar maritime militia forces—though they are far smaller and more constrained in their nature and scope of operations.
Chinese Maritime Militia units have already played key roles in a series of international maritime incidents and skirmishes throughout the seas near China, particularly the South China Sea. These include China’s 1974 seizure of the western portion of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, the 2002 sabotage and 2009 harassment of U.S. survey ships, the 2011 sabotage of two Vietnamese hydrographic vessels, the 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, and the 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels from disputed waters surrounding its HYSY-981 oil rig.
In late 1973, months prior to the Battle of the Paracels, Maritime Militia trawlers 402 and 407 asserted their presence and planted flags. During the January 1974 conflict, they played important roles as first responders, providers of early warning and tactical intelligence, springboards for militia insertion and island landings, and rescuers of PLAN minesweepers. As Naval War College professor Toshi Yoshihara explains in his seminal study of the conflict, this irregular sea force played a key political-military role for Beijing in the conflict, containing escalation while facilitating portrayal of Saigon as the aggressor. Case in point: even though an American military advisor was captured together with South Vietnamese troops, a U.S. intelligence report demonstrated acceptance of Beijing’s narrative, deeming the “key step in the escalation” to be “Saigon’s military response to the move of Chinese fishermen into the Crescent [island] group.”
Maritime Militia forces likewise allow China to disrupt foreign survey operations with lower escalatory risks than aggressive maneuvering by PLAN warships would present. The militia can close in assertively under the close, watchful eyes of China’s other two sea forces. The Maritime Militia’s involvement in supporting “rights protection” actions such as China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal demonstrates its special role in advancing China’s claims. Militia forces were similarly critical in repelling Vietnamese fishing vessels approaching the HYSY-981 oil rig, including by ramming them. The incident also demonstrated China’s ability to mobilize Maritime Militia from numerous localities and maintain a militia presence throughout the duration of confrontation, in this case lasting two months. The Maritime Militia are thus able to fulfill a variety of roles spanning the spectrum of peacetime coercion and wartime confrontation.
Maritime Militia personnel train for a variety of missions, such as search and rescue, reconnaissance, assisting law enforcement and rights protection, light weapons use, and logistics support. In August 2014, for instance, a PLAN South Sea Fleet maritime garrison held a large-scale exercise in the Gulf of Tonkin that simulated the defense of an oil rig. In coordination with PLAN and China Coast Guard vessels, as well as aircraft from the PLA Air Force, the garrison’s Maritime Militia units performed perimeter security functions to repulse advancing enemy vessels and frogmen. Other Maritime Militia units, like those in Jiangmen city of Guangdong Province, have recently trained in reconnaissance. Exercises have also included deception operations to obfuscate PLAN activities, such as by employing corner reflectors on fishing vessels to alter radar signatures. “In peacetime, fisherman can provide first-hand and the most up-to-date intelligence to the navy,” states longtime PLAN scholar Li Jie, “while in wartime, they are the best at logistical tasks such as supplying food and water.”
As disruptive as China’s third sea force is already today, soon the situation is likely to get still worse. Maritime Militia capabilities are poised to expand further as Beijing’s desire to “win without fighting” (coercion without killing) through calibrated South China Sea operations grows and a small but potent contingent of demobilized military forces are becoming available as a result of Xi Jinping’s three-hundred-thousand-troop downsizing to make the PLA—literally—leaner and meaner. Veterans, after all, constitute a priority recruitment target for militia organizations in China. And Beijing’s ongoing development and fortification of artificial islands in the South China Sea will further support Maritime Militia presence and capabilities.
Responding to signals from Beijing, China’s newly established National Defense Mobilization Department of the Central Military Commission is promulgating national guidelines for reserve force construction in the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan, with the Maritime Militia featured prominently and given a category of its own. These guidelines have trickled down to the provinces, with new Maritime Militia units proliferating along China’s coastline. A growing network of localities has vastly expanded the scale and scope of their Maritime Militia forces. Most prominently, the PLA Beihai City Military Command in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region told China Daily that “the proportion of maritime militia in the city increased tenfold over the past two years, from less than 2 percent at the end of 2013 to more than 20 percent last year.” This entailed a buildup from two detachments totaling two hundred Maritime Militia in 2013 to ten detachments totaling over two thousand personnel by 2015. Such expansion enabled the sea force “to play a bigger role in drills organized by the PLA Navy,” for a total of seven in 2015. Sr. Col. Xu Qingduan, head of the command, stated that “the city’s maritime militia has been required to take part in more air and naval exercises since 2014.”
Expansion of the Maritime Militia at the expense of the land militia prompted Beihai city government and military departments “to give more favorable policies and financial support to the civilian sea force.” Xu’s command explained further that its Maritime Militia had recruited “A number of Navy veterans and experienced sailors . . . and 10 specialized teams have been established for transport, reconnaissance, obstacle clearance, medical service and equipment repair. The maritime militia recently worked with Navy warships in a joint operation drill and successfully fulfilled their designated tasks.” Meanwhile, Hainan Province’s Sansha city “is enhancing its maritime militia’s training and giving more duties to the force.” Guangdong Province’s Jiangmen city “is also organizing realistic sea operation exercises for local militiamen to strengthen their combat capability.”
High Time to Unmask China’s Third Sea Force
Clearly, the capabilities of China’s Maritime Militia are significant and growing. It has performed with distinction in war, helped augment and develop contested features, and participated in many international incidents at Beijing’s behest. These forces have appeared during U.S. freedom of navigation operations, and may well be used in the future to render such operations more complicated and risky. All the more reason that Washington needs to understand, and counter, Beijing’s Little Blue Men now.
Before another incident involving China’s Maritime Militia and American forces erupts, the U.S. government must get out in front of the problem with its own authoritative statements. Surprisingly, however, to date no U.S. government report or Washington-based official has publicly mentioned China’s third sea force. If the U.S. government, with all its resources and capabilities, has not yet begun to address this challenge openly and proactively, how can it expect its Southeast Asian partners—on the front lines of freedom to access and keep open a critical portion of the global commons—to do so? Most recently, the failure of the Pentagon’s 2016 China military power report to reference maritime militia at all was a major missed opportunity. Congress should ensure that the 2017 report has extensive coverage.
Until Washington finally seizes the initiative in the information space, the next best thing is for researchers to document and publicize the facts. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and immediately dispels shadows in which irregular forces can lurk. Clearing up ambiguities in the identities and intentions of China’s Maritime Militia also renders void some of its advantages, possibly precluding potential incidents involving their use by convincing Chinese decisionmakers and militiamen alike that it might not be effective. To that end, we offer the following key points:
1. China’s Maritime Militia is a military force—often in disguise.
China’s Maritime Militia is designed to superficially appear “civilian” in certain respects and contexts, and to certain audiences—including by being given considerable leeway regarding when to wear the military uniforms in which they typically train. An article in China’s official military newspaper encapsulates the desired deception: “Putting on camouflage, they qualify as soldiers; taking off the camouflage, they become law-abiding fishermen.” Demonstrably authoritative Chinese sources document conclusively that members of China’s Maritime Militia are in fact state actors reporting to, and directed by, the PLA chain of command and other elements of China’s government to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities.
In fact, in such international skirmishes as the Paracels Battle of 1974, the Impeccable incident of 2009 and the HYSY-981 oil rig incident of 2014, members of China’s Maritime Militia have been clearly observed integrating with, and operating in close coordination with, China’s other two sea forces. During the harassment of USNS Impeccable, a crew member on a fishing trawler registered to a Maritime Militia organization and piloted by a militia cadre infamously attempted to snag Impeccable’s towed array with a grappling hook after the American ship was forced to a halt by dangerous maneuvers from the trawler, another trawler and two coast guard vessels acting together, as a PLAN warship watched nearby. Nor was this an isolated attempt. In 2011, a Chinese trawler snagged itself on the towed cable of Vietnam’s Viking 2 survey vessel, halting its operations.
To incentivize such risky state service, localities such as Danzhou in Hainan Province (home to the militia that helped China seize the western Paracels from Vietnam in 1974) provide militia personnel with a “pension” of 56,400 yuan ($8,636) a year if they are disabled in the line of duty—the same benefits that other government employees receive, and solid motivation in a rural Chinese fishing village. This is in addition to a slew of other subsidies, as well as political indoctrination and glorification, bestowed upon citizens furthering China’s maritime sovereignty claims and interests.
Moreover, official Chinese sources document unambiguously that some of China’s most advanced Maritime Militia units—precisely the sort that would be entrusted with “rights protection” and other missions potentially requiring hazardous interaction with U.S. and other foreign forces—are receiving training directly from uniformed PLAN personnel while wearing their own Maritime Militia uniforms. Maritime Militia units are typically linked to the PLA chain of command directly through People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFDs), their direct managers for recruitment, planning, organization, training and policy execution.
2. China’s Maritime Militia forces do not deserve civilian protections during conflict.
At a “mandatory wicket” level, through which Maritime Militia communications and directives—such as mobilization and mission orders—must typically pass, county-level PAFDs are staffed by active duty PLA personnel. This direct Chinese military and government chain-of-command linkage should disqualify China’s Maritime Militia members from the special treatment accorded true civilians.
China’s current approach thus puts in danger its Maritime Militia personnel and any other individuals and vessels around them, as it imposes a risk of force being used against them by U.S. or other forces in legitimate self-defense or to otherwise legally ensure legitimate passage of vessels or other operations. The engagement in potentially escalatory behavior by China’s Maritime Militia members, with the implicit assumption that such activities are purely civilian and therefore should not be regarded as escalatory, in fact greatly raises the chances of miscalculation on the part of American, Chinese and other forces—and hence for dangerous escalation.
To increase transparency and mutual awareness concerning an important area for crisis avoidance, crisis management, escalation control, and the highlighting and use of de-escalatory off-ramps in the event of any use of force or other destabilizing incident, it is therefore extremely important for the United States to fully and publicly acknowledge the existence and nature of China’s Maritime Militia—and to discuss in detail its attributes, its potential employment, and the consequences that may be faced by it and other Chinese government actors in certain contingencies. Beijing would not allow random fishermen to harass foreign vessels in sensitive sea areas; any elements that ignore repeated warnings by U.S. Navy vessels to desist from disruptive activities should be treated as military-controlled and dealt with accordingly.
3. Uncovering the truth about China’s Maritime Militia is the best way to deter it.
Even if Chinese interlocutors profess ignorance or decline to discuss these matters initially, they will bring American messages with them back to Beijing. Those messages need to be clear and consistent, starting with “We’re wise to your game” and moving to “It won’t stop our legal efforts to ensure access and keep the peace.” Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, has taken the extremely positive initial step of raising the issue of the Maritime Militia with PLAN Commander Adm. Wu Shengli. Swift emphasized the importance of “ensuring that regional naval forces, including coast guards and maritime militia, continue to behave professionally and in accordance with international norms, standards, rules and laws.” But far more needs to be done; by far more U.S. officials, especially high-ranking Washington-based civilians; with far more public communication; and with clear, explicit emphasis from President Obama and his administration.
The U.S. government can underscore the significance of China’s Maritime Militia by linking the behavior and activities of all three of China’s major sea forces to American interaction with them. The PLAN should not simply be allowed to bear-hug the U.S. Navy for prestige and best practices as the “good cop” of naval diplomacy, while China’s Coast Guard and Maritime Militia “bad cops” (some of which the PLAN itself trains) do the dirty work of bullying neighbors and threatening openness and stability in the East and South China Seas. In the interest of safety and accident prevention, for instance, China’s Coast Guard and Maritime Militia should be expected to adhere to the same Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to which the PLAN has explicitly committed itself. The United States should likewise call on Vietnam to require its own Maritime Militia to adhere to CUES so that proper rules and norms can govern all irregular forces’ activities in the region.
Any Chinese failure to cooperate in this area should trigger an explicit review of activities that the PLAN itself values, such as participation in the next U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. To the extent that Beijing continues to obfuscate concerning the nature of its Maritime Militia, American interlocutors should declare explicitly that any vessels clearly engaged in unsafe behavior on behalf of China in areas where international law permits U.S. vessels’ operation will be dealt with as necessary to ensure self-defense and unobstructed mission accomplishment.
The Bottom Line
The United States must “call out” China’s Maritime Militia in peacetime, raise public awareness and share information with neighboring countries, and impose consequences for its employment—while preparing to address a full range of “Gray Zone” and kinetic contingencies with relevant allies and security partners. Only then can Washington get out ahead of the serious problems and risks that are only likely to intensify after the PCA hands down its verdict on July 12, likely angering Beijing and prompting it to assert its claims by nonlegal means. As storm clouds gather increasingly over the South China Sea, strong and effective American leadership in addressing China’s third sea force is long overdue. Fortunately, there’s a logical place to start.
Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor 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. Conor M. Kennedy is a research assistant at CMSI. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors. They in no way represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government. The authors thank Ryan Martinson for invaluable inputs.
Image: Flag of the People’s Republic of China. Wikimedia Commons/@Oskarp