The Maritime Militia

Article by Imran Shamsunahar

The U.S Third Fleet expands its operations in East Asia and tensions rise in the South China Sea. Our author dives deep into the murky world of territorial control and explains in detail the place of nonmilitary personnel in Chinese strategic culture.

China’s Little Blue Men: Fighting the ‘People’s War at Sea’

‘Without a people’s army, the people have nothing’ – Mao Zedong

One of the most contested regions on the planet right now, without a doubt, is the South China Sea. A large body of water rich in energy and fish stocks, in recent years it has also been plagued with overlapping maritime boundaries and stage to a great power rivalry. The sea has become an increasing concern for many security analysts as the next possible hotspot for the outbreak of conflict. Besides the usual $5 trillion in seaborne trade, offshore exploration expeditions and huge fishing fleets, we are now used to seeing aircraft carrier battle groups, nuclear-capable strategic bombers and nuclear-powered submarines regularly traverse the waters and airspaces of the South China Sea.

Given all these expensive and fancy weapons of war both the Americans and Chinese have begun showing off, one particularly interesting weapon currently being utilized by the Chinese has been the humble fishing boat; part of China’s newly vaulted ‘maritime militia.’ These are largely civilian vessels, comprised of mainly fishing fleets and merchant marines, which are utilized by Beijing in a military role. From the onset, they seem like non-threatening civilian fishermen, simply practising innocent commercial activity. However, a closer analysis will reveal these fisherman are in fact willing soldiers of Beijing, playing a discreet but significant role in helping China maintain strategy presence in contested waters across most of the South China Sea, fighting in effect what some scholars have dubbed a ‘people’s war at sea.’.

How the maritime militia are organized, commanded, and supplied can be complex to understand, owing to the myriad of different administrations which are involved in them. In their extensive research done into the militias, Naval War College scholars Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson lay out the general command structure. As a unique local military force, the maritime militia falls within the command structure of the PLA. Militias are split into either an ‘ordinary’ reserves and a ‘primary’ force which is more readily mobilized. Coastal cities with large maritime industries or fishing communities form battalions, but most militias are at company size levels. Real command of the militias begin at the Provincial Military District (MD), while it’s up to the People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) at the county and grassroots level (such as townships, villages, fishing industries, and shipyards) to organize and train them.

When it comes to funding, the immediate costs incurred for running the militia on a daily basis are provided by the militia’s home city or county, while larger costs related to specific missions or larger projects (such as providing new bases to operate from or larger and more modern vessels) are funded by the provincial government. The fishermen and fishing enterprises are duly reimbursed by the government for costs incurred during any operation they had undertook.

The maritime militia in China’s strategic culture

When looking at Chinese strategic culture and its traditional conception of seapower, one can begin to understand how its maritime militia came to be and how they have sought to harness it. It must first be pointed out that Chinese seapower, historically, has differed from the Western experience. According to the classical naval theorist Alfred T. Mahan, Western seapower developed primarily out of private initiative in the form of sea trade. As a nation’s sea trade and therefore maritime interests expanded, so too did the need to develop an effective navy to defend such interests from foreign predation (as well as to attack that of one’s enemies in the cut-throat mercantilist world Mahan envisioned). As he succinctly stated: ‘the necessity of a navy, in the restricted sense of the world, springs, therefore, from peaceful shipping, and disappears with it.’

When one observes the historic growth of Chinese seapower through the dynasties, it seems evident that the periods in which China maintained effective navies correlates with periods when they had thriving sea-borne trade. However, it would be wrong to equate this sea-borne trade with ‘private commerce’ in the Western sense. The Chinese philosophical tradition, from Confucianism to Maoism, rejected commerce as being a private matter, and saw its inherent political nature. Trade was used by the emperors to build alliances with the barbarian tribes of the north, as well as overseas relations through maritime commerce (notably during the famous expeditions of Zheng He).

As such, what developed was a culture in which individual profit was subordinated to the interest of the state. Compared to the traditional Mahanian concept of ‘the flag following trade,’ what we had in China was seemingly the inverse. It thus seemed natural that these private mariners would willingly forgo profit in favour of serving the larger interest of Beijing through the maritime militia.

The idea of mobilizing the masses in support of the war effort is also featured prominently in Maoist strategic thinking. Like Clausewitz, Mao saw war as inherently political in nature, and that only through the political mobilization of the masses could one hope to succeed in it. Mao would argue that having the support of the masses would create a ‘vast sea in which to drown the enemy, create the conditions that will make up for [one’s] inferiority in arms and other things, and create the prerequisites for overcoming any difficulty in the war.’ Indeed, the formation of the maritime militia dates back to the founding of the People’s Republic, when an exhausted China was just setting up a brown-water navy to protect its shores from naval predation coming from Nationalist Taiwan. Party authorities also found that enlisting civilian fishermen into the communist cause was a useful way of preventing them from defecting to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Overall, when looking at the so-called ‘maritime militia’, what we see is a blurring between the traditional Western division between ‘peaceful, commercial activity and military muscle-flexing[1].’ As noted by Naval War College scholar James Holmes: ‘Chinese strategists take an extraordinarily broad view of sea power — one that includes non-military shipping.’

Strategic presence: the maritime militia as a tool to establish local dominance

‘Using the normal force to engage, and use the extraordinary to win’ – Sun Tzu

The maritime militia have been observed undertaking various tasks in support of both the Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Among them have included transporting materials for their infamous island and reef construction work in both the Paracels and Spratly Islands, providing supplies for the soldiers currently stationed on these islands, search and rescue operations for fishing boats during typhoons or storms, harassing American warships undertaking freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the region, and providing escort duties for certain maritime projects (notably when trawlers based on Hainan Island protected a Chinese drill platform in waters disputed between Vietnam and China, helping drive away over 80 Vietnamese trawlers, mostly by ramming them). Their most notable strategic use, however, has been establishing what I dub ‘strategic presence’ in contested waters.

This is largely centred on securing China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, centred on its land features and its more vaguely defined territorial waters, in the face of what they consider to be foreign encroachment. Over the years they have sought to accomplish dominance mainly through their mere presence in contested waters. Although the South China Sea has already been proven to hold bountiful supplies of fish stocks, there is seemingly a geo-political incentive as well for China’s fishermen to fish in particular waters, insofar as they help Beijing bolster their claim to contested waters by having their fishing fleets maintaining almost constant presence there.

There is a major advantage to having civilian shipping in place of more conventional warships, insofar that they allow Beijing to establish strategic presence without having to worry about escalating the situation. Having a swarm of civilian trawlers in place of armed ships in effect is considered less threatening, and allows the PLA to create a grey area for any rival navy coming to contest their presence. Rival navies would be loath to shoot at apparently unarmed civilian ships, out of both ethical reasons and out of fear of escalating the situation. As such, they would be more hesitant on how to correctly react, and will most likely find their capabilities stretched as they seek to deal with often hundreds of trawlers at a time.

Using the maritime militia graces China with what Naval War College scholar Toshi Yoshihara dubs the ‘second mover advantage.’ By placing civilian shipping in contested waters, Beijing is thus putting the onus on its maritime rivals to make the first move. Should said rival decide to react by attempting to remove them, Beijing can win a moral victory by portraying the militiamen as innocent fishermen harassed by bullying rival navies. And should shooting start, Beijing can thus count on their powerful coast guard and the PLAN to come to the militiamen’s protection, safe with the knowledge that they have legitimacy in international eyes. Thus China arguably has a win-win situation regardless of the outcome.

China can afford to play a long game of asymmetrical attrition; simply flooding contested waters with their fishing fleets, overwhelming their rival naval capabilities and daring them to make the first move, safe with the knowledge that the might of the PLAN is waiting just over the horizon to act as a deterrent. And should things get out of hand, the murky nature of the maritime militia can be a benefit. An official PLA newspaper was quoted as saying: ‘putting on camouflage they qualify as soldiers, taking off the camouflage they become law abiding fishermen[2].’ This ability to shift between soldier and civilian provides the militia with strategic ambiguity, and thus provides China with the unique ability to more finely calibrate the level of tensions in the region, and decide how much escalation it thinks is worth the hassle.

The maritime militia not only allows Beijing to more effectively deal with China’s rival maritime claimants in the South China Sea, but helps keep extra-regional powers from interfering, notably that of the United States. Certainly the United States would be less disposed to possibly enter into conflict with China over what from the onset seems nothing more than fishing disputes? The militia thus allows Beijing to make small, micro/tactical provocations in multiple areas across the South China Sea, slowly creeping their hold on the waters while butting out their rival claimants. The United States, focusing more on responding at the macro/strategic level, is thus caught off guard, and increasingly hesitant on how to respond. Both the US and the Southeast Asian claimants may realize that said tactical provocation by the Chinese is simply not worth breaking its larger relations with Beijing. As two observers of Chinese actions in the SCS have noted: ‘The U.S. nuclear umbrella and web of military alliances can effectively deter a Chinese attack on another country but cannot credibly deter low-intensity activities that do not involve a direct use of military force.’

Observers of the current conflict in Ukraine have often commented on the similarities between the so-called hybrid war practised by Russia during its occupation of Crimea in 2015 to what China is practising now with its maritime militia (with many commentators dubbing the militia the ‘little blue men’ in reference to Russia’s ‘little green men’) Both approaches basically followed the same logic; utilizing non-military, unorthodox means to create in effect a grey area which rival professional conventional militaries are unable to respond to for both ethical reasons and out of fear of escalation, throwing them off balance, gaining the initiative, and eventually consolidating your newfound position of strategic strength.

Strategic presence in action – the Scarborough Shoal incident.

A prominent example of the maritime militia successfully securing China’s maritime claims was the Scarborough Shoal incident on the 10th of April, 2012. The incident started when a Filipino reconnaissance plane detected five Chinese trawlers fishing near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, off Luzon Island. Manila dispatched a naval flagship called the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to investigate. Having discovered they were fishing illegal catches, the Philippine Navy sought to stop the trawlers and arrest the fisherman. However, while being boarded to be investigated, one of their trawlers were able to radio authorities back in Tanmen village, the militia’s headquarters. This prompted the Chinese to dispatch two China Marine Surveillance vessels to intervene, preventing the arrest. Concerned about escalation, Manila duly recalled the frigate and dispatched a coast guard vessel in its place. Beijing responded by another ship from fisher law enforcement.

Faced with eight Chinese vessels including the civilian fishing trawlers (with the PLAN lurking just over the horizon), the Philippines was clearly outnumbered. After a month long standoff, both countries agreed to remove their ships in an agreement brokered by the United States. However, the Chinese soon after promptly sent back its law enforcement ships to close off the shoal, and have retained a presence in the feature ever since.

Thus we can see the strategic effectiveness of the maritime militia. In this case, the Chinese had the benefit of the ‘second-mover advantage’, putting the onus on the Philippines to remove their fishing fleet from the shoal. It is only when the Philippine Navy decided to react by attempting to arrest those fisherman did the Chinese spring into action, sending more nonmilitary ships into the fray to disrupt their arrest and overwhelm them, while also gaining the moral high ground. Loathe to shoot on civilians, and mindful of the presence of the substantially more powerful PLAN lurking just over the horizon, the Philippine Navy wisely refrained from escalating the situation. Having nudged them out through eventual third party intervention, the Chinese were then able to successfully maintain permanent presence in the shoal.

The maritime militia as naval auxiliaries: the Battle of the Paracels as a case study.

As China’s first line of defense in its maritime environment, it should be noted the maritime militia not only serve a role in peacetime, but have been specifically trained to operate in wartime conditions as well as naval auxiliaries. It has been reported that more specialized maritime militia ships have been trained to engage other enemy ships using sea mines and anti-air missiles. Many maritime militiamen have been given live-fire training, and militia fleets have been used before to transport armed militiamen onto disputed islands to claim sovereignty. They are also tasked with protecting critical maritime infrastructure - such as bridges, ports, and railways – from infiltration and sabotage. One major pre-occupation of theirs, in both peacetime and war, has been as to serve as the eyes and ears of the PLA within the SCS. Advocates of the militias have strongly emphasized the usefulness of the militia in performing reconnaissance duty, with many trawlers provided with navigation satellite system, which allows them to track enemy shipping and communicate with friendly ports.

We can directly see the military usefulness of the militias during the Battle of the Paracels, in 1974, between the naval forces of Mao’s China and South Vietnam over disputed islands in the Paracels. The prelude to the battle started when two Chinese fishing trawlers maintained presence in disputed waters off Crescent Group in the Paracels, landing crew members to plant flags on some of the disputed islands. When the RVN Navy sent two frigates to pull down the flags and harass the trawlers, the latter were able to send warnings to headquarters. When PLAN ships duly arrived, the militia were able to coordinate with them to place militiamen onto Crescent Group’s southeastern island under cover of night, pre-empting the Vietnamese. These militiamen were subsequently able to repel Vietnamese commandos attempting to seize the islands the next day. The trawlers provided tactical information to the PLAN commanders at sea, and during the actual naval engagement helped rescue a crippled PLAN minesweeper by beaching it on Duncan Island. In the aftermath of the battle, with the enemy fleet fleeing, the trawlers helped transport militiamen to the remaining Vietnamese held islands, thereby securing control of the entire archipelago.

As such, we can see that the maritime militia played a crucial auxiliary role during the battle, namely through providing reconnaissance and early warning, tactical intelligence, transport of militia onto the islands, and support for the damaged PLAN ship. They also served a larger political role, insofar that their status as civilian ships allowed the Chinese to portray the Vietnamese as the aggressors, and thus rob the Americans of a rationale for potential involvement. Indeed, in subsequent American reports on the incident, it noted that ‘Saigon’s military response to the move of Chinese fishermen into the Crescent group’ was the ‘key step in the escalation.’ This no doubt delighted the Chinese.

Future development of the maritime militia?

What does the future hold for China’s maritime militia? It should be noted that the maritime militia has not come without its challenges. As the fishing industry continues to privatize, Beijing may struggle to maintain militia numbers as more and more companies sell off trawlers in the face of decreasing catches. Indeed, a recent piece in the South China Morning Post noted that the Chinese government has considered a drastic downsizing of its fishing fleets in the face of overfishing in its rivers and seas, with one fishermen based of Hainan Island quoted as saying that fish stocks have fallen by over 60%.

For the time being however, it seems evident that Beijing seems unlikely to discard their maritime militia as a tool to promote their maritime claims. Given their strategic ambiguity and ability for Beijing to more finely manage tensions in the region, Beijing would arguably see little reason to discard this strategy. Worries over depleting fishing stocks and its effects on the size of fishing fleets ignores the fact that fishing is ultimately a secondary concern for the PLA compared to simply maintaining strategic presence in disputed waters. Xi Jinping’s recent downsizing of the PLA may provide a healthy pool of military reserves to man the militias in the future. As pointed out by Holmes: ‘Why jettison a strategy that holds such promise?