Hainan Province is using the fishing industry as a launching pad for the nation’s consolidation of the South China Sea (SCS). It is one of many measures—such as strengthening maritime law enforcement forces, enhancing administrative measures, augmenting infrastructure through island building, and delivery of 3G cellular coverage—but one with particular potential. China’s fishing industry and the world’s largest fleet that it wields has been an important foreign policy tool in Beijing’s repertoire since much of China’s historic claim on the SCS and current presence therein hinges on fishing activities. The fishing fleet’s political and strategic role has been given special significance and potential by China’s widespread employment of a relatively unknown paramilitary organization: the maritime militia.
Maritime militia building dates to the founding of the People’s Republic, when the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had only the most basic naval capabilities. KMT blockading of mainland ports and depredations against merchant vessels along the coast forced the PRC to arm and prepare its fishermen militias, not only to protect themselves but to also aid early PLA ground and naval operations. During the tumultuous periods of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the fishing fleet saw ever more importance as high-end naval capabilities were targeted as tools of “the imperialists.” Desperately needed as providers of food during the long periods of famine, China’s fishing fleets were relatively insulated from political attacks. They saw employment in early PLAN coastal operations to recapture KMT occupied islands, surprise attacks against KMT naval ships, and later in the 1974 Battle of the Paracels.
Despite the leaps and bounds achieved by China’s Navy and Coast Guard forces in recent years, maritime militias still form “an irreplaceable force ” within China’s maritime armed forces. There are increasing efforts to organize, standardize and normalize their utilization in support of broader foreign policy goals, inserting additional options into Chinese military and government leaders’ playbooks. They also have a particular set of advantages that allows their employment when professional, more visible maritime forces would create political costs that could trigger anti-China coalition building in neighboring countries.
Heading up the charge to build Hainan’s Maritime Militias is Luo Baoming , the provincial party chief; followed by a number of officials, most notably former Director of the State Oceanic Administration Liu Cigui. At the center of this effort are the newly founded Sansha prefecture-level city, its mayor Xiao Jie , and Maritime Militia Company, established in July 2013. This all comes on the heels of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s historic visit to the small fishing village of Tanmen in Qionghai County during his tour of Hainan Province in April 2013. There he listened to the fishermen’s stories and visited the local Maritime Militia Company’s museum exhibit. Xi’s commendations and instructions to this famous company have sparked a fury of Militia growth in Hainan Province. Subsequently Hainan’s government, party and military jointly promulgated “Opinions on Strengthening Maritime Militia Construction” in 2014 to legislate the guiding spirit Xi articulated on his visit. Such legislation serves to fund and promote local counties to organize and recruit maritime militias, largely for the express purpose of protecting China’s sovereignty and maritime interests in the SCS.
Seen as brave patriotic mariners opposing incursions by foreign navy and coast guard vessels, and aided by the political steamroller that is executing China’s long-term strategy of becoming a great maritime power, these grassroots actors joining paramilitary organizations are creating a grey area difficult for other navies, or even coast guards, to deal with. They constitute a portion of a multipronged effort directed at the SCS, which includes the Paracel Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, and the Spratly Islands, and could be described as forming a united front outwards from China’s “Southern Gate” designed to solidify China’s position in the SCS.
The humble Tanmen Maritime Militia may seem like a small organ in the vast body that constitutes China’s maritime forces, but its ability to pioneer techniques and serve as a model for the thousands of other maritime militias along China’s coast—in coordination with China’s more professional forces—should not be overlooked. China’s government and military leaders, Xi foremost among them, emphasize its value.
Who, and Where, are the Tanmen Militia?
The yearly Bo’ao Forum for Asia , China’s answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos, trumpets Asian integration and internationalist ideals. Yet just a few miles to the northeast of its permanent headquarters in Bo’ao Town lies the seat of a decidedly nationalist power base resolutely opposing internationalism in the SCS: Tanmen Village. A day after delivering the keynote address at the 2013 Bo’ao Forum Conference with a speech advocating the cooperative and peaceful development of all Asian nations, Xi traveled to the fishing hamlet to inspect its Maritime Militia Company. This unit’s relentless work in safeguarding China’s maritime rights in recent years has received much Chinese leadership attention. Created in 1985, Tanmen Maritime Militia Company has over the years received more than twenty separate awards from central, regional and provincial military authorities proclaiming its status as an advanced militia work unit. Having established his own maritime militia company in Sansha City, Sansha City Mayor and Party Secretary Xiao Jie led a delegation to Tanmen Village in November 2013, visiting the fishing harbor and Tanmen Maritime Militia Company’s history exhibit, no doubt in an effort to emulate its success back home.
Tanmen Village has been integrated into Hainan’s bourgeoning tourism industry, earning the title “National Civilized Fishing Harbor” by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Guiding Cultural and Ethical Progress. Tourists visiting the area frequent Tanmen to enjoy small harbor life and the nostalgic atmosphere of old-style Chinese fishing culture. Meanwhile, wider efforts to modernize and strengthen fishing fleets flow from these southern Chinese ports, particularly in “core fishing harbors” like Tanmen’s. It features a naturally deep harbor and is a major fishing service logistics port and distribution center with easy access to the rich fishing grounds of the Paracels, Spratlys, and Macclesfield Bank.
Hainan’s government heavily subsidizes the construction of larger, steel-hulled fishing trawlers designed with greater cruising ranges and ability to operate longer in rougher conditions. Modernization efforts seek to reduce the number of rudimentary wooden vessels that are depleting China’s coastal fishing stocks, replacing them with new modernized trawlers capable of fishing further afield. Coupled with skyrocketing Chinese demand for aquatic products, this frees China’s maritime law enforcement forces to administer distant areas of the SCS. More controversially, having more robust fishing trawlers manned by maritime militias would enable them to withstand collisions with neighboring states’ less -advanced fishing vessels. Indeed, many Chinese writings on the maritime militia specifically call for the recruiting of reliable, highly capable steel-hulled fishing trawlers.
As of March 13, 2015, Tanmen Village had already received seventeen of its twenty-nine preordered 500-ton displacement steel-hulled fishing trawlers, fully equipped with high-tech navigational and communications equipment, and a minimum cruising range of 2,000 nautical miles. These vessels have sufficient supplies to remain at sea for months on end, and would represent valued additions to many regional states’ coast guards. For example, the San Juan-class patrol craft operated by the Philippine Coast Guard is not much larger. Considering the poor state of the Philippines’ civil maritime forces and the vast maritime territory they must patrol, a fleet of modern, durable fishing trawlers serving as auxiliaries would be of great value. In a village of less than 30,000 people, by contrast, the fishing population of Tanmen now has over 8,500 people and 300 vessels involved in the development of the Spratlys. One of the Tanmen Maritime Militia personnel now leads caged aquaculture (raising fish in netted cages in open water) in the Crescent Group of the Paracels.
The provincial government is pushing to build up Tanmen Village and improve its fleet and militia capabilities. The Qionghai City government promulgated “Opinions on the Implementation of Accelerating Tanmen Village Construction Development,” meant to provide a series of preferential policies for militia, vessel, and maritime economy investment and development. Other specially allocated funds by the government have gone toward establishing a militia company headquarters, building newer, larger vessels with modern communications equipment, and improving the quality of training of militia members. One Tanmen fisherman reports that regarding vessel construction subsidies, of the 5 million RMB it takes to build a 500-ton modern trawler, the central government provides 1.5 million, the Qionghai City government 300,000. There are even subsidies for diesel fuel, showing the extent to which Hainan authorities desire a modern fishing fleet that can not only increase fish netted but also form an organized militia force protecting China’s “blue territory.” The company headquarters actively reinforces the concept of “blue territory consciousness” in its members, often described by the Tanmen Militia as the seas being their fields and their boats as their homes, reflecting a guerilla-type ideology in repelling foreign incursions.
Front Line Patriots
Historically, most Chinese fishermen lived on their vessels, a trend the early Communist government sought to change, since many fishing families would put to sea and subsequently defect to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Southeast Asia. To ensure party control of this floating population, the Chinese government in the 1950’s imposed fishing collectives, indoctrination programs and rules to monitor fishing vessels at sea. The First Five-Year Plan and subsequent regulations included measures such as requiring two family members to live ashore while their vessel was out to sea; stationing Party members aboard during operation; and having fishing vessels in groups of ten self-monitor to report aberrant activity, with the community liable for individuals’ actions. An important focus was the political indoctrination of fishing communities and some merchant mariners to ensure the seaborne masses would remain loyal and not fall prey to foreign influences. The communist government sought to gain fishing communities’ trust, as they would later become valuable auxiliaries against the KMT naval forces that regularly raided mainland shores. Seaborne threats still loom large in Chinese leaders’ minds.
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.
Conor M. Kennedy is a Research Fellow at CMSI.