Chinese maritime militia in the defending and promoting Beijing's sovereignty claims

1Maritime militia is an official force of the Chinese armed forces. Initially, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was not really strong and modern, the maritime militia was considered an indispensable tool of this army in war. Today, it has become the top choice to help China demonstrate decisive actions in strengthening its maritime sovereignty claims and causing incidents or conflicts at sea in accordance with Beijing’s intention. Activities of the Chinese maritime militia against Japanese coastal force in the waters of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands a few years ago or their recent escort and protection activities for the Haiyang Dizhi 8 geological survey vessel, which seriously violated Vietnam's sovereignty in Vanguard Bank, have led experts of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) to pay close attention to follow, research and assess as below.

          Despite being part of the Chinese armed forces, when conducting sovereignty protection activities, the maritime militia usually disguise as civilians. However, this force operates under the command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and sometimes the China Coast Guard (CCG). With these characteristics, the maritime militia is the most suitable force to carry out important tasks in China's intention of "expansion" at sea. For example, when foreign vessels pass through disputed areas, the maritime militia may appear just as ordinary fishermen, but beneath that cover can be a state-sponsored activity. The use of maritime militia is guided by the political and strategic consideration of the Chinese leadership. Politically, the militia can strongly pursue Beijing's claims without fear of criticism from the international community as when using the policy of "gunboat diplomacy"; or should they need to worry about war escalations or interferences from abroad. When not in uniform, activities of the maritime militia can be framed as individual acts. With this advantage, the maritime militia became the ideal tool for China to pursue national goals in the "Gray Zone" tactics between war and peace.

          The maritime militia carries out a number of separate tasks to protect and promote China's sovereignty claims. In general, these tasks are divided into four categories: 1/ Presence; 2/ Harassment and obstruction; 3/ Escort; 4/ Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Specifically as follows:


          Presence is a central task of the maritime militia in protecting national interests. It was conducted by sending maritime militia to disputed waters in fishermen's guise to display the Chinese flag and claim territorial ownership. The presence of the maritime militia in the disputed waters also justifies the presence of other forces, especially the CCG - the force sent to manage operations and ensure the safety of fishermen.

          As China pushes to modernize its fishery, fleets will receive subsidies fuel, vessel building aids, and other offers. Maritime militia members also enjoy a great deal of backing from the military and the government, which helps minimize the risk of sailing. The combination of economic and social supports allows Chinese maritime militia to send a large number of militia vessels into disputed waters.

          Due to the geographical location and circumstances of the disputes, the presence of the maritime militia in the East China Sea and the South China Sea varies greatly. In the South China Sea, the maritime militia routinely sends vessels to areas China claims "sovereignty" to assert fishing rights, thereby indirectly asserting sovereignty. In 2013, the Guangzhou Military Region Mobilization Department outlined the goal of deploying maritime militia to all areas within the "nine-dash line". Hainan Province also repeats this goal, identifying that the maritime militia helps maintain continuously fishing vessels in China's waters to achieve a constant presence and to demonstrate "sovereignty".

          The maritime militia also plays an important role in expressing China's claims to disputed waters. In April 2012, the Philippines sent flagship Gregorio del Pilar to Scarborough Shoal to prevent Chinese fishermen from illegally violating and fishing in the waters. The event triggered a controversy over the ownership of the Scarborough Shoal when both China and the Philippines claimed sovereignty over the shoal. Two months of tension after the first clash, China seized the shoal and forbade Philippine vessels from approaching the area. Later, in coordination with CCG forces, members of the maritime militia maintained their presence at Scarborough Shoal during the pending time of the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Law of the Sea (PCA), pressuring the Philippines to meet Beijing's demands. This event shows that China has actual control over Scarborough Shoal, located isolatedly 116.2 nautical miles to the west of the Philippine island of Luzon of and nearly 448.2 nautical miles from China's baseline to the southeast of Hong Kong. In early 2014, the Chinese maritime militia played a similar role to the Second Thomas Shoal dispute, located 105 nautical miles northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan. This shoal also was claimed to be “under sovereignty” by China although Philippine naval vessel BRP Sierra Madre, an old U.S. dilapidated tank landing vessel, stationed here with a group of marines to protect sovereignty since the 1990s. In March 2014, tension over Second Thomas Shoal sovereignty started heating up as the deadline to file the Philippines' lawsuit to PCA approached. Worrying that Manila would transport materials to repair and consolidate the deteriorating Sierra Madre, Beijing decided to create pressure by harassing Filipino vessels carrying supplies to Filipino soldiers stationing at Second Thomas Shoal. Although the foreign press only talked about the role of CCG forces, it was impossible to ignore the influence of the maritime militia of Fugang Fishing Company in this intimidation campaign.

          On February 27th, 2014, seven fishing vessels and one supply vessel of China left Sansha Bay and reached Second Thomas Shoal on March 3rd, 2014. Receiving command from CCG, the vessels approached the Philippine outpost within 1 nautical mile and hung Chinese national flag to confirm the presence of Chinese civilians. Maritime militia, under the guise of fishermen, is suitable to approach and carry out state-sponsored activities, thereby claiming China's "sovereignty" over the Second Thomas Shoal. In addition, when moving closer to the Sierra Madre, the maritime militia can easily observe and report to the Chinese authorities about the activities on the vessel, thus giving a reliable confirmation on the Philippines’ action to consolidate this amphibious vessel. Although there was no overt coercion from the maritime militia, its presence still represents China's threat to Filipino soldiers, forcing Manila to expel such forces from the shoal.

          Recently, China has used the maritime militia to pressure the Philippines, making it unable to build civilian facilities on the sand dunes near Thitu Island, the second-largest island of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. On August 13th, 2017, Beijing dispatched a task force of PLAN, CCG, and Sansha maritime militias to the Sandy Cay beach on the western side of Thitu Island. This fleet surrounded Sandy Cay on all three sides and sent fishing boats as near as possible to Thitu Island, some of which also enter the area of 1 nautical mile. A Philippine official said Chinese maritime militia prevented the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ vessels from accessing the area on August 15th, 2017.

          Chinese maritime militia is also frequently present in the areas China claiming sovereignty in the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands. Activities such as the rotational deployment of large vessels and armored vessels made the maritime militia look more like the navy than fishermen. Small units of this force, simultaneously deployed from many ports around Hainan Island, took turn going back and forth for 45 days. The deployment of the maritime militia also receives support by large outposts that China has built illegally in the Spratly Islands. This includes providing safe harbors, fuel replenishment, repairment, freshwater supply, etc.

          When performing daily presence missions, the maritime militia creates an illusion that they are the normal fishermen operating in China's waters. There is evidence that they are succeeding, even with the Sansha maritime militia, which is arguably China's most professional maritime militia unit to date. For example, in a report in April 2017, Reuters emphasized that China subsidized small scale fishing activities of fishermen in Scarborough Shoal. The report described the amicable relationship between Filipino fishermen and Chinese fishermen, but the actual accompanying images showed the huge vessels of the Sansha maritime militia next to tiny bamboo boats of Filipino fishermen. However, the report only revealed the increased presence of CCG forces and fishing fleets without mentioning China's maritime militia.

          Recently, in the East China Sea, the presence of Chinese maritime militia is less prominent. However, this force still plays an important role in helping China assert its sovereignty claim over the Japan-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

          Harassment and Obstruction

          The next task of the maritime militia is to impede operations of foreign fishing vessels in the waters China claimed "sovereignty". These activities are aimed at asserting China's maritime claims in a way that shall not affect human life. Special targets of the maritime militia force are foreign fishing vessels and facilities which are on surveillance and survey duty.

          In response to foreign survey and surveillance vessels, the Chinese maritime militia could block the normal course of these vessels or attempt to damage the towing cable behind the vessels - vulnerable part due to the slow speed vessels maintain during data collection.

          The 2009 Impeccable ocean surveillance vessel case was a good example of obstructing activities by Chinese maritime militia. On March 8th, 2019, the USNS Impeccable clashed with a group of Chinese vessels at 65 nautical miles to the south of Hainan Island. The fleet included one PLAN intelligence-gathering vessel, one state oceanographic management vessel, one maritime law enforcement vessel, and two maritime militia vessels from Sanya city. The group of two maritime militia vessels was the most aggressive. They blocked the path of the Impeccable, forcing it to stop and then trying to break the towing cable behind.

          Foreign fishing vessels are also targeted by China's maritime militia. With a relatively small investment in large-sized steel fishing vessels, China can equip and use them to affirm the right to control foreign fishing activities in waters China claimed “sovereignty”. This tactic includes threats, verbal warnings, ramming into foreign vessels, or even sinking. A Hainan provincial official said one of the important roles of the maritime militia was to carry out "civilians against civilians" activities, thus avoiding the risk of escalating wars.

          Obstructing foreign fishermen is an important task of Sanya maritime militia, especially forces stationed at outposts in the Paracel Islands. Due to the sensitivity of this activity, before approaching and repelling foreign fishermen from waters China claimed "sovereignty", Sanya maritime militia had to register and receive direction from the command post on Woody Island. When on duty, the maritime militia can wear uniforms and they have successfully prevented foreign fishermen from landing in the Paracel Islands.


          The Chinese maritime militia is also responsible for protecting the activities of survey vessels in disputed areas. The force acts as a protective layer, protecting survey vessels from foreign vessel obstructions and protecting the towing cables behind the vessels from damages.

          The Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey has hired fishing vessels from Zhanjiang City to escort two survey vessels Tan Bao and Fen Dou 4. In May 2005, Fen Dou 4, escorted by two fishing vessels from Guangzhou, encountered many Taiwanese naval vessels when they were operating in the southwestern exclusive economic zone of Taiwan. Taiwan criticized Fen Dou 4 for mapping the ocean floor for PLAN submarine activities. After three days of confrontation, Chinese vessels left the area.

          The Chinese oil and gas industry also uses the maritime militia to escort seismic survey vessel group and operating rigs. The duty to escort survey vessels usually includes at least two maritime militia vessels, but the number of vessels will increase greatly when survey vessels or drilling rigs operate in disputed waters. For example, when China illegally operated the Haiyang 981 rig in Vietnam's waters, dozens of maritime militia vessels were deployed during its working period. In particular, Fugang seafood company dispatched up to 29 maritime militia vessels.

          Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance

          It’s the maritime militia's intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions to support China's territorial dispute activities by providing the necessary information for leaders to come up with effective strategy and tactics. Maritime militias are suitable for this role because they are large in number, and able to collect intelligence more discreetly than PLA and CCG forces.

          The maritime militia has a long history of carrying out ISR missions, especially during the Cold War. A Chinese fisherman and a member of Sanya city maritime militia recounted his experience of following an American "spy" vessel in 1973. His platoon, equipped rifles, was to track US vessel activities for days under the guidance of the PLA to avoid unnecessary troubles, because "if the military is dispatched to approach American vessels, a confrontation could easily happen.”

          In the contemporary context, technological advances have enhanced the communication between vessels on the sea and the PLA's Command onshore. In many cases, locally based PLA watchdogs will receive reports directly from the cruise vessel or official letters from the affiliated vessel enterprises. Captains of the maritime militia vessels are also information officers. These people have advanced training in the use of communication systems and reporting protocols. Maritime militants provide reports with available equipment, such as Beidou satellite navigation systems, marine radios, and satellite phones. The widespread use of these devices allows the authorities to easily establish a reliable communication network among maritime militias in fishing fleets.

          During a military exercise in July 2014, Chinese maritime militia’s Suhai'anyu 00101 spotted a USNS Howard Lorenzen long-range missile strike vessel on its radar. Immediately, this vessel and other units of the maritime militia began to approach, surveil and record the activities of the Lorenzen. Although it is unclear how close the vessel is to the Chinese coast, the Chinese maritime militia still tries to harass and force the American vessel to turn around. In May 2017, China's Defense Minister came and praised the captain of the Suhai'anyu 00101 vessel for the actions of expelling Lorenzen, and also affirmed the importance of maritime militia and its key role in reconnaissance of blind spots at sea; he compared the maritime militia to "small boats" with "the eyes capable of seeing thousands of miles".

          Through these studies and assessments by British military experts, the use of maritime militia allows China to strongly pursue its "sovereignty" claims, helping Beijing avoid the risks of escalating wars, discrediting, and other associated risks if using traditional tools of national power, such as PLAN. To increase activities of maritime sovereignty disputes with other countries in the region, China has increased the frequency and capabilities of maritime militia including close coordination with PLAN and CCG; the PLA pays special attention to ISR maritime militia missions. The scope of activities of the maritime militia also greatly expanded, playing a direct role in incidents on the sea. In other words, China's maritime militia has been and will be playing a major role in the China-engaged dispute activities in the South China Sea and the East China Sea