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