Tanmen Militia: China’s 'Maritime Rights Protection' Vanguard
"The maritime militias built out of the fishing industry are becoming a major foreign policy tool for the consolidation of China’s claims."
In 1985, the first year of Tanmen Maritime Militia’s establishment, company leader Huang Xunmian led a hundred men on five trawlers to the Spratlys for fishing operations. Upon their return, he organized propaganda teams to inform villagers of the area’s rich resources and the importance of developing the Spratlys, calling upon them to pool funds to build new vessels. Huang’s lead inspired the people when he contributed all the money he had saved to build a new home towards the boats. Altogether the villagers collected over 6 million RMB to construct 12 vessels in 1986, then 23 more in 1987. Now, with full government support, they are receiving larger, more capable vessels to operate in the Spratlys.
Today the government still strives to instill strong patriotic inspiration in fishing communities. Among them, the Tanmen Militia is celebrated as exemplary patriots whose vigilant watch over the SCS remains a critical underpinning of China’s administrative control of its claimed waters. Narratives of struggle against the harassment of foreign coast guards and navies serve to catalyze domestic support for a Maritime People’s War in the SCS, of which the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company has provided numerous stories. This company specifically fishes in disputed areas with full recognition that their productive activities and presence further China’s claims.
In 1995, four of the company’s vessels were fishing near Mischief Reef when the 62 fishermen aboard were detained and imprisoned for half a year by Philippine authorities. One of Tanmen Militia’s squad leaders, Chen Zebo, recalls his encounters with the Philippine Navy. In 1997 the Philippine Navy arrested four Chinese fishing vessels and 60 fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, including Chen, again imprisoning them for half a year. Two years later, Chen continued fishing at Scarborough Shoal when a Philippine Naval vessel rammed and sunk his boat, again arresting him and his squad. In each instance, he claims, Philippine Police beat him and attempted to force his signature of a confession saying he fished illegally in Philippine waters. He resisted and was released; his fight with the Philippine Navy continued. Chen and another squad leader sparked the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff when the Philippine Navy boarded their boats to inspect their catch. Having been jailed twice, his boat sunk, and drawn into an international dispute, Chen is just the sort of exemplary militiamen whom Chinese authorities laud for refusing to surrender China’s maritime interests.
Maritime Rights Protection
The presence of militiamen acting as fishermen created a demand for the deployment of maritime law enforcement forces to come to their aid. According to Beijing’s narrative they are providing protection and management, as opposed to Manila’s view of them imposing it. The common maintenance of Chinese fishing presence thus serves as the demand end of the administrative control over disputed areas, albeit sovereign waters in the Chinese eyes. Chinese activities at Scarborough Shoal might therefore be described as “demand-pulled consolidation.”
There are numerous departments involved in training the maritime militia, such as the People’s Armed Forces Departments, Fishery Law Enforcement Command, Maritime Safety Administration, and with active duty units at Sanya Naval Base. Local military leaders take advantage of the off-season or when fishermen militia boats return to port to conduct training in various subjects, such as reconnaissance, search and rescue, and disaster response. The recent study room the company built, complete with computers and shelves of books, hosts efforts to educate the militia members in maritime law, marine science, electronic equipment use, and other specialized maritime knowledge. In 2013, Tanmen held 32 days of conventional training, 18 days of intensified training, and 9 live-fire training sessions. This company and many other maritime militia units are being trained to assist the navy, coast guard, and other maritime law enforcement agency forces to protect China’s maritime interests.
Trained in rescue operations, this militia company is famous for saving stranded fishing vessels in stormy or typhoon conditions. Members respond to various emergencies and coordinate with the Border Defense Department’s Station in Tanmen Village, having established a “South China Sea 9-1-1 ” (110 in China) 24/7 alert monitoring system. This response capability has been further augmented by the recent installation of the Beidou satellite navigation and communication system on all company fishing vessels.
The company organizes its units based on the vessels they use, with the harbor serving as their base of operations. Single vessels form squads with three vessels per platoon and nine vessels forming a company. Altogether the total number of militia members hovers around 108, and there are significant efforts at mobilizing the entire fishing community of Tanmen into the broader development of the SCS. Party control of the maritime militia is critical since its activities can yield disproportionate influence on foreign affairs at sea. The Party branch of the Tanmen fishing community has 29 members, all shareholders in fishing production. They watch over the community and families while the fishermen are at sea, and guard the vessels when moored in the harbor. They oversee the forming of small Party groups that deploy with fishing boats to ensure Party control persists even in distant waters.
The Tanmen Maritime Militia Company is also well-known for its efforts at island and reef construction in the Paracels and on all seven of the Chinese-occupied features in the Spratlys. Since the 1990s, Tanmen fishermen under the organization of the company have assisted the navy by delivering 2.65 million tons of construction materials, including rebar, concrete, and stone. They also frequently resupply PLA troops stationed on the islands with water, food, and other essentials. These fishing boats draw much less attention in resupplying the various stations, allowing for gradual, quiet infrastructure construction in the SCS. These militia members helped uphold the occupation of these features until the Chinese government was ready to initiate the major reclamation projects launched around 2013.
Tanmen Village Deputy Party Secretary Xu Dequn explains that the militia and fishermen’s biggest contribution is “rights protection.” The Chinese claims within the Nine-Dash Line encompass most of the SCS and are upheld by China’s rights protection force[C27] , composed of maritime law enforcement fleets meant to assert Chinese domestic law concerning activities in disputed waters. Little known are the efforts of Chinese military leaders to integrate the maritime militias into this rights protection force, such as the Zhoushan Garrison commander’s prescriptions regarding the Maritime Militia’s missions in rights protection. The Tanmen Maritime Militia has been protecting China’s maritime rights for decades and is still heavily involved, albeit now backed by maritime law enforcement vessels with displacements that number in the thousands. It has also reportedly provided 510 valuable intelligence reports over the years, and opened up 30 routes for the navy.
A Force to be Reckoned With
The Tanmen Militia embodies the Chinese ideals of struggle, sacrifice, and selflessness for the masses along the coast, encouraging other maritime militias not to yield when confronted with foreign “aggression.” In November 2013, during a large operational training session, the militia company’s deputy commander lost his son to electrocution when he was making repairs to their vessel. The deputy commander demonstrated great resolve in continuing his training duties after his son’s funeral, inspiring fellow militiamen and the local military command.
Tanmen Militia members know all the features of each island group and have transmitted their traditions and knowledge to younger generations. The company has built its own history exhibit with artifacts such as compasses, ship logs, and goggles from their forefathers, who fished the SCS long before them. Chinese leaders find great value in the preservation of local fishermen history there as it helps reinforce Chinese historical claims to “traditional fishing grounds.”
The building up of the Tanmen fishing village helps to increase the fame and influence of this small unit, but with greater overarching implications for affairs in the SCS as this model work unit becomes a symbol for the province’s other maritime militias being organized. Using political indoctrination and economic inducements, the maritime militias built out of the fishing industry are becoming a major foreign policy tool for the consolidation of China’s claims. China’s vanguard Maritime Militia in Tanmen is leading the way.
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 Fellow at CMSI.