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.