Chinese maritime militia forces threatening other claimants in the South China Sea

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At a Security Conference in Makati, Manila, the Philippines on December 7, 2018, Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) observed that the underlined mission of Chinese maritime militia forces is to threaten their neighboring countries with sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Though these forces are just showing up as fishing fleets, we should keep them in close watch.


Since China's naval bases in the Spratly Islands came into operation, its naval forces, coast guard and fishing vessels have maintained a regular presence in the South China Sea, fueling tensions between countries in the region. As Gregory Poling put it, "What Beijing has done over the past several years is to establish 24/7 presence of naval and coast guard vessels as well as paramilitary force throughout the South China Seain a way that was unprecedented just 4 or 5 years ago. I mentioned the maritime militia, the paramilitary forces or how we'd like to categorize them. I think we have an impression that this is relatively a minor part of the Chinese arsenal and we are making a mistake." A satellite image taken in August 2018 shows that there are about 200 vessels within a day in the water surrounding Subi Reef. These vessels have an average length of 51m, longer than many fishing vessels from the Philippines and other countries. As Poling observed, none of these vessels are actually fishing. “When we tracked them, we never see them doing anything other than intimidating others”. These vessels often leave Subi Reef and anchor around Thitu Island for days and weeks to intimidate Filipino supply missions. In addition, these vessels are also regularly present around the islands occupied by Chinese in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, chasing Vietnamese fishing vessels away from these areas.

The militia, including the maritime militia, is one of the three forces of the Chinese People’s Armed Forces, together with the military and armed police. China’s 2013 Defense White Paper confirmed militia as a backup of the Chinese military forces.

Maritime militia units are stationed in the vicinity of towns, villages, urban sub-regions, etc. with great diversity in terms of composition and tasks. In addition to daily work, they are organized and trained like other militia forces. Previously, maritime militia hired private fishing vessels. Now it is developed as a State-owned fishing fleet. Since 2015, starting from the "Sansha City", China builds a more professional, militarized and well-paid maritime militia force operating more specialized ships equipped with water cannons and reinforced hulls able and ready to collide other vessels. A large number of such vessels participate in training with the support of Chinese naval force and coast guard in many missions such as enforcing maritime claims, monitoring and protecting fishing grounds, logistics, search and rescue. To support and encourage the maritime militia efforts, the Chinese government also subsidizes many provincial and local-level organizations so that militia vessels can perform "official" tasks at sea.

In its August 2018 annual report on China's military and security development, the US Department of Defense believed that Beijing owns the largest and most powerful maritime militia on earth, one of the few maritime militias remaining so far and the only force assigned to deal with sovereignty disputes. As a major part of the Chinese armed forces, the maritime militia operates under direct military command to conduct state-sponsored activities. China is fully aware of values of the ambiguities of the maritime militia. With fishing vessels equipped with light weapons, the maritime militia force can participate in activities to support China’s maritime interests and reinforce its illegal "nine-dashed line" claim in the South China Sea without undermining PLA’s image or pushing incidents into escalated tensions.

This is not the first time that the United States warned of Chinese maritime militia activities’ impacts to countries in the South China Sea. Previously, at a hearing before the US House Armed Services Committee in September 2016, Prof. Dr. Andrew Erickson of the US Navy Academy said China's maritime militia was a paramilitary force disguised in civilian operations but actually operating in the front line. The hidden force, supposed to carry out ‘hidden’ tasks, often works as fishing boats but hardly care about fishing. Experts believe that these fishing vessels are participating in a campaign of creating “a gray zone” or areas of maritime disputes. In blue uniform, Chinese fishermen become maritime militants in disguised on the fishing vessels conducting reconnaissance, spying or other disruptive actions. The ambiguity between China's fishing vessels and maritime militia ships really confuses the forces of concerned countries in the South China Sea and makes these Chinese vessels even more aggressive and disrespectful of international law. When they operate illegally and are captured by concerned authorities of other countries, China can refer to Article 95 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea[1] and requests an exemption because they are owned by maritime militia force (i.e. technically warships), China even argues that such capture is an aggressive action.


In the past, maritime militia vessels acting as fishing vessels engaged in many aggressive incidents with foreign ships to protect China's 'national interests,' disturbing stability in the South China Sea, e.g. in May 2014, taking advantage of the Chinese illegally placing the Haiyang Shiyou-981 (HYSY-981) oil rig protected by its coast guard ships in Vietnam's waters, together with fisheries surveillance and military forces, dozens of Chinese fishing vessels set up a protective barrier around HYSY-981 oil rig and provoked Vietnamese naval and coast guard vessels, thus intensifying the situation and leading to potential conflicts between the two parties. According to Defense News, in October 2015, when patrolling close to Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands which China illegally occupied and developed into artificial islands, the US destroyer Lassen was surrounded and provoked by many Chinese ships. While big Chinese warships remained far away, many small ones were getting more provocative, running across or hovering around the US ship. Many sources reveal that these vessels are all commercial or fishing vessels controlled by members of the so-called maritime militia...

Disguised as fishing vessels that might invite less attention in the South China Sea, the maritime militia has been deployed more frequently by China to increase its presence in the region to monitor the operation of other countries' fishing, naval and coast guard vessels. They are even used to conduct aggressive activities to enforce China's interests at sea, threatening other countries' vessels in the area. In the South China Sea, as part of China’s broader military doctrine of “confrontation not war”, maritime militia plays an important role in regional "invasion" activities to help it achieve its political objectives without firing. The US Department of Defense warns that Beijing's use of maritime militia is undermining the interests of countries in the region and beyond to maintain the status quo in the South China Sea, where rules and standards remain the foundation of peace and prosperity.

In the future, China will develop an increasingly modern and professional maritime militia force in terms of both quality and quantity as the activities of such force are regulated by any sanctions. In 2014, Western Pacific countries, including Vietnam and China, agreed to sign the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). At the time, CUES was only limited to the naval and military forces of concerned countries and remains in effect until now. Vietnam has proposed the signing of an extended CUES which covers the coast guard and fishing boats but Beijing is yet to agree. This clearly shows China's intention to use its maritime militia to engage in aggression, harassment of fishing vessels and warships of other countries operating in the South China Sea to reinforce its unreasonable maritime claims.

[1] Article 95: Warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any State other than the flag State.