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.