Explained: Beijing's 'maritime militia' dominating the South China Sea

China does not acknowledge their existence and when questioned, refers to them as a “so-called maritime militia.”

But Western specialists say the alleged militia is an integral a part of Beijing’s efforts to exert its territorial claims in the South China Sea and past. They declare its blue-painted vessels and their crews — allegedly funded and managed by the People’s Liberation Army — can rapidly deliver a Chinese presence so massive round disputed reefs and islands they’re virtually inconceivable to problem with out triggering a navy confrontation.

Analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore say they’ve by no means seen a Chinese operation of this dimension earlier than.

“The Whitsun Reef incident is unprecedented in scale and notable for its duration: the largest numbers of Chinese fishing vessels gathered at any time at one Spratly reef, and staying there for several weeks,” Samir Puri and Greg Austin, each senior fellows at the IISS, wrote last week on the organizaton’s blog.
In this photo provided by the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, Chinese vessels are moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 27, 2021. In this photo provided by the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, Chinese vessels are moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 27, 2021.

The Philippines protested the Whitsun incident to Beijing, calling the boats a “swarming and threatening presence” and saying the flotilla was infringing on Philippine territory and fishing grounds. Manila demanded the Chinese boats go away the space, which it maintains is in unique financial zone.

Beijing countered that the boats, which numbered 220 at one level, in line with the Philippine authorities, had been merely escaping tough seas by transferring inside a lagoon shaped by the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef, which Beijing calls Niu’e Jiao and claims as a part of its territory.

“Due to maritime situation, some fishing boats have been taking shelter from the wind near Niu’e Jiao, which is quite normal. We hope relevant sides can view this in an rational light,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila was extra blunt. “There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged,” it stated.

The diplomatic forwards and backwards between Philippine and Chinese officers continued final week, with the Chinese Embassy in Manila calling remarks by the Philippine protection secretary relating to the Chinese boats as “wanton” and “perplexing.” The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs fired again, deploring the Chinese Embassy’s assertion, reminding China its diplomats are “guests” in Manila and pledging to difficulty every day diplomatic protests whereas Chinese vessels are in the Philippines’ maritime zones.

How does the Chinese Maritime Militia allegedly work?

Despite Chinese authorities denials, there’s little ambiguity in Western circles about what the Pentagon calls the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM).

“The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia don’t fish,” Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, informed NCS. “They have automatic weapons aboard and reinforced hulls, making them very dangerous at close range. Also, they have a top speed of around 18-22 knots, making them faster than 90% of the world’s fishing boats.”

Analysis: China has built the world's largest navy. Now what's Beijing going to do with it?Analysis: China has built the world's largest navy. Now what's Beijing going to do with it?

Some specialists have taken to referring to the militia as “Little Blue Men,” a reference to the colour of their boats’ hulls and to Russia’s “Little Green Men,” troopers in unmarked inexperienced uniforms who infiltrated Crimea earlier than Moscow annexed it from Ukraine in 2014.

“The Maritime Militia is used by Beijing ‘to subvert other nations’ sovereignty and enforce unlawful claims,'” a December report from the heads of the US Navy, Marines and Coast Guard stated.
“The Militia is a key component of China’s Armed Forces and a part of what it calls the ‘People’s Armed Forces System,'” Conor Kennedy and Andrew Erickson, two main American specialists on the topic, wrote for the US Naval War College in 2017.

It is “a state-organized, -developed, and -controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities,” they added.

The alleged militia is built-in with China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest with greater than 187,000 boats, Erickson informed NCS, however the precise variety of armed boats stays unclear to Western specialists.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels anchored the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea. Tuesday, March 23, 2021. This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels anchored the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea. Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

Whatever their ranks, specialists say they’ll lead massive flotillas of precise fishing boats in actions to additional Chinese authorities insurance policies and territorial claims — together with these in the South China Sea.

“China is typically secretive about its Third Sea Force (behind the PLA Navy and coast guard), which might conceivably number in the thousands of vessels and in the tens of thousands of personnel. Possibly more,” Erickson informed NCS.

A 2020 US Defense Department report on the Chinese navy mentions solely 84 precise maritime militia boats, all assigned to a unit working out of Sansha City on Hainan island, in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The unit, established in 2016, will get frequent subsidies to function in the Spratly Islands, the report stated.

“This particular PAFMM unit is also China’s most professional. Its forces are paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities and recruited from recently separated veterans,” it stated.

But Erickson informed NCS the boats seen round Whitsun Reef in latest weeks appeared completely different from these in the Hainan unit, suggesting full-time militia boats are higher in quantity than beforehand thought.

Erickson and colleague Ryan Martinson, writing in the journal Foreign Policy late final month, stated monitoring of a few of the Chinese boats at Whitsun utilizing open-source intelligence reveals they got here from Taishan in China’s southern Guangdong province.

At least seven “enormous” trawlers that had been in the Whitsun lagoon may very well be a part of “the most advanced PAFMM unit yet developed and deployed,” Erickson and Martinson wrote.

Using automated identification system knowledge, they stated the boats at Whitsun had patrolled the Union Banks, the place Whitsun Reef is, in addition to different Spratly Islands options like the Subi and Mischief reefs, each of which have been constructed up and militarized by the Chinese armed forces.

“There is no evidence of fishing whatsoever during these laser-focused operations, but every indication of trolling for territorial claims,” the pair wrote.

Data that Erickson and Martinson compiled from MarineTraffic.com reveals simply how regularly the unit has been in the Spratly Islands chain over the previous yr.
As of March 29, solely 44 boats remained in the Whitsun Reef lagoon, NCS affiliate NCS Philippines reported, citing a press release from the Philippine authorities’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.

The relaxation had scattered to different contested reefs and islands in close by waters, the assertion added.

What is the goal of a maritime militia?

The idea of a maritime militia, or an irregular naval drive, permits China to make territorial claims in large numbers with out ever involving the People’s Liberation Army correct, Western specialists say.

Even if lead boats like these talked about by Erickson and Martinson are comparatively small in quantity, they’ll spearhead flotillas in the a whole lot — as seen in Whitsun Reef.

“These classic ‘gray zone’ operations are designed to ‘win without fighting” by overwhelming the adversary with swarms of fishing vessels,” Derek Grossman, a RAND Corp defense analyst, wrote last year.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs at the University of the Philippines, summed up what Beijing has done in recent weeks at Whitsun Reef and recent years across the South China Sea — 1.3 million square miles of water, almost all of which Beijing claims as Chinese territory.

“They at the moment are basically occupying Whitsun Reef by the mere presence of their vessels,” Batongbacal stated in an interview with National Public Radio.

“That’s truly the goal of the Chinese technique, to determine de facto management and dominance over the complete South China Sea by way of these incremental strikes.”

In this photo provided by the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, Chinese vessels are moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea on March 27, 2021.In this picture supplied by the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, Chinese vessels are moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea on March 27, 2021.

From a tactical standpoint, the fishing boats represent hundreds of obstacles an adversary like the US Navy would have to work around. And the US Navy could likely only deploy a few destroyers at any one time to challenge them.

That puts huge numbers in China’s favor.

“Because they’re low-cost, fishing vessels will all the time outnumber warships,” Johns Hopkins University researcher Shuxian Luo and Columbia Univeresity researcher Jonathan Panter wrote in the US Army’s Military Review journal earlier this yr.

So even actual, unarmed fishing boats appearing beneath the management of maritime militia vessels could be an efficient navy drive.

“Instead of a kinetic risk, Chinese fishing vessels current extra of a disruptive one. Deployed in even restricted numbers, fishing boats can inhibit, if not prohibit altogether, a warship’s skill to conduct” anti-submarine warfare and flight operations with its helicopters, Luo and Panter wrote.

From a strategic standpoint, “difficult these vessels is harmful,” they wrote — especially for other Southeast Asian nations that have claims to features in the South China Sea but don’t have the military might to stand up to China.

“Weaker states, conscious of Chinese fishing vessels’ doable authorities affiliation, would possibly hesitate to have interaction with them in a means that might provoke a PRC (Beijing central authorities) response,” they said.

Because China says they are not military vessels, it can claim any action against them by foreign navies or coast guards would constitute an attack on Chinese civilians.

“The power of the maritime militia is its deniability, which permits its vessels to harass and intimidate overseas civilian craft and warships whereas leaving China room to deescalate by denying its affiliation with these actions,” Luo and Panter wrote.

But with those overwhelming numbers for China comes risk as well, the analysts said.

“The similar components that make the maritime militia a deniable drive (its civilian crews and dual-use expertise) additionally increase the danger of accidents and escalations,” Luo and Panter wrote.

“This is a poisonous combine: resulting from the maritime militia’s deniability and the core pursuits at stake, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has a excessive incentive to make use of it, however the extra frequent its operations, the higher the probability of interactions with US vessels that might spin uncontrolled.”

In this March 7, 2021, photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, some of the 220 Chinese vessels are seen moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea. In this March 7, 2021, picture supplied by the Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, a few of the 220 Chinese vessels are seen moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea.

And it’s not just interactions with US ships that could spark wider conflict.

A statement from the White House said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his Filipino counterpart and said the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies in this case.

That would mean any hostile action against Philippine forces or territory by China could bring a US military response.

The US kept up the dialogue with Manila last Thursday, when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted he had a substantive conversation with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin “discussing our issues with People’s Republic of China militia vessels in the South China Sea.”

China, for its part, has said it is the United States that is at the root of tensions in the South China Sea — on the military level by sending its warships and warplanes on exercises there, and on the diplomatic level with bellicose statements.

When then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last summer accused China of “bullying” its Southeast Asian neighbor, the Chinese Embassy in Washington said the US State Department “intentionally distorted info, exaggerated the scenario in the area and tried to sow discord between China and different littoral international locations,” the state-run Global Times reported.

Where has this activity been seen before?

The concept of a Chinese maritime militia traces its roots back to the days just after the Communist revolution in 1949 as the government of Mao Zedong looked for coastal defense, Grossman, the RAND analyst, wrote.

Without any navy to speak of, Beijing pumped money and training into a maritime militia left over from the nationalist regime it ousted. A few years later, collectivization of local fisheries added a new layer of Communist Party control to the militias, Grossman said.

In the 1960s, as the PLA Navy developed, it trained the militias in military tactics and operations and used them in more PLA Navy missions, he added.

The tiny islands that could explode the China-Vietnam relationshipThe tiny islands that could explode the China-Vietnam relationship

But in 1974, as China fought with then-US ally South Vietnam over management of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the use of fishing vessels in fight operations proved their price, Grossman wrote.

The PLA Navy used two fishing trawlers to ship 500 Chinese troops to the disputed islands as the presence of civilian Chinese fishing boats round them slowed South Vietnamese navy determination making, the RAND analyst stated.

Once the Chinese troops had been in place, the South Vietnamese garrison surrendered.

“A key lesson discovered for Beijing was that leveraging fishing militia forces was far much less more likely to set off US intervention in the matter even when the threatened neighbor was a US ally,” Grossman said.

In the South China Sea, the Philippines is one of those US allies — and China has used the maritime militia in operations to gain control of territory recognized by a United Nations tribunal as belonging to Manila, experts and officials say.

Grossman and others note the presence of a maritime militia in Chinese operations that led to Beijing’s control of Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal in 1995 and 2012, respectively.

The Chinese-controlled artificial island of Mischief reef in the South China Sea, as seen by CNN from a US reconnaissance plane on August 10, 2018.The Chinese-controlled synthetic island of Mischief reef in the South China Sea, as seen by NCS from a US reconnaissance airplane on August 10, 2018.

A 2016 ruling by the UN Tribunal said both Mischief and Scarborough are in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but China does not recognize the ruling and in fact has built one of its largest South China Sea fortifications on Mischief.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday said what China is doing now is a repeat of 1995 and 2012.

“The utter disregard by the Chinese Embassy in Manila of worldwide legislation, particularly the UNCLOS to which China is a celebration, is appalling,” Lorenzana said in statement.

“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the space reveals their intent to additional occupy options in the West Philippine Sea.”

China has additionally used fishing boats to tackle the US Navy instantly, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On March 9, 2009, two fishing boats — operating with Chinese naval and fisheries ships — allegedly attempted to target the towed sonar array of the USNS Impeccable, a civilian-crewed survey ship, in the South China Sea. The Chinese trawlers also stopped in front of the US ship, forcing it to perform an emergency stop to avoid collision, according to the AMTI report.

Meanwhile, another US survey ship, USNS Victorious, was being harassed in the Yellow Sea, the report said.

China claimed the US ships were operating illegally in its exclusive economic zone. Washington said its ships were in international waters and well within their rights to be there.

A precarious future

The 2009 incident showed how close the US and China could come to an actual confrontation because of Beijing’s alleged use of fishing boats for military purposes. But Grossman said, given neither the Impeccable incident or any of its island occupations have blunted Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, more deployments are likely.

“If historical past is an effective indication of what to anticipate in the future, then Beijing is more likely to double down on the PAFMM in nearly any state of affairs conceivable. That means it needs to be a drive to be reckoned in the years to come back,” he said.

Puri and Austin, the IISS analysts, said Beijing is already taking stock of reactions to Whitsun Reef.

“The Whitsun Reef incident is a strong demonstration of China’s willingness to run dangers by assembling such a big focus of vessels in a extremely contested space,” they wrote.

“If these analytic assumptions are correct, China’s navy management can be evaluating the efficiency of its most up-to-date maritime militia foray and the responses it has elicited from others,” they said.

Robert Williams, executive director of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, said China would likely try to keep the intentions of any maritime militia — and the rules it adheres to — murky.

“China is extremely efficient in using non-militarized coercion instruments. Beijing has not been eager to surrender these instruments, which it sees as incurring restricted escalation dangers with neighboring international locations,” Williams wrote on the Lawfare blog of the Brookings Institution.

Essentially, Beijing wants to keep Washington — and its South China Sea neighbors — guessing.

“It could be an overstatement … to assert that the Chinese navy institution relishes crises. Many PLA thinkers are extremely delicate to the destabilizing dangers of navy crises,” Williams wrote.

But China, he said, sees “ambiguous signaling as a supply of … deterrence.”

Essentially, if an adversary is continually making an attempt to evaluate intentions, it is not taking motion.