A file photo shows Japanese coastal guard vessels repelling fishing boats using water cannons. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A file photo shows Japanese Coasat Guard vessels repelling Chinese fishing boats using water cannons. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

It is a force that is massive in scale – but does not appear on an official order of battle. It is easy to locate – but difficult to combat. And it is highly deployable – but largely deniable.

Meet what is emerging as the third element of China’s maritime forces: a weaponized fishing armada.

While the world focuses on China’s expanding blue-water naval portfolio, such as its aircraft carriers, a fleet of less technically impressive, but more deployable vessels is making itself known. Seen in action off disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea, prominent in chaotic confrontations around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and engaged in fatal clashes with South Korean coast guards in the Yellow Sea fishing grounds, the role that China’s fishing fleet plays in Asian maritime disputes is only gradually being recognized.

China fields the world’s largest fishing fleet, but it has been a matter of dispute among security analysts as to what extent they constitute a para-military force. While China’s navy and coast guard are known entities, this new force is increasingly coming onto the radar of parties aligned against China as a “maritime militia.”

The U.S. Department to Defense’s annual report to Congress, released in August, on the strength of the Chinese armed forces, drew attention to the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM) for the second time in it annual report. “The PAFMM is a subset of China’s national militia, an armed reserve force of civilians available for mobilization,” the Pentagon noted. “The PAFMM plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting.”

The Pentagon performed a signal service by officially and authoritatively defining this subject, Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a leading authority on the subject, said in online comments. Bolstering Washington’s analysis, the Japanese Defense Ministry’s annual white paper, “Defense of Japan, 2018” also took note of the militia.

Command and control, weaponized vessels, trained crews

The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, treats the maritime militia with respect. “Let’s be careful not to characterize them as a rag tag group of fishermen,” he said in a 2017 interview. “I think they have clear command and control; they are not acting randomly.”

The Chinese military is asserting more control in over its sea services. Early this year, the Chinese Coast Guard, formerly run by the State Oceanic Administration, was placed under the direct rule of the Central Military Commission, the high command of the Chinese armed forces.

The Chinese maritime militia is virtually unique. “Only Vietnam is known to have a roughly equivalent force, but it is not in the same league as China,” writes Erickson. “Beijing has what is clearly the world’s largest and most capable maritime militia.”

How many boats make up the Maritime Militia is unknown, but somehow, large numbers of fishing boats seem to materialize on cue in the various showdowns Beijing engages in in East Asian coastal waters.

Although unarmed, many boats reportedly have strengthened their hulls for ramming attacks: Several Vietnamese boats were rammed and sunk in the dispute caused by China erecting an oil-drilling rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and in 2016, Korean coast guard boats capsized after being rammed. Some Chinese fishing vessels have been equipped with water cannons, and crew members carry hand-to-hand weapons to counter boarding: A South Korean coast guard was fatally knifed in the Yellow Sea while boarding a Chinese fishing boat engaged in illegal fishing in 2011.

However, the main threat posed by the militia comes from their sheer numbers. In this way, the force is a modern iteration of Mao Zedong’s idea of “Peoples War” – a human wave defending China through sheer numbers rather than through sophisticated armaments.

There are plenty of trained fighting men coming available to crew the fleet. Many of the 300,000 soldiers in the People’s Liberation Amy soldiers being made redundant by army downsizing this year are reportedly finding new employment as “fishermen” in the maritime militia.

The “third fleet” gives Beijing the ability to flood a conflict zone with literally hundreds of fishing boats, turning any confrontation into a chaotic, confusing melee. This causes a problem for democracies, as U.S., Japanese and South Korean and Southeast Asia vessels may be fearful of sinking “civilian” boats.

And the PAFMM provides handy cover for Beijing. If “fishermen” are caught and arrested by – say, Japan for occupying disputed features in the East China Sea – there is no proof that they are part of a recognized military engaged in state-led power projection operations.

A tri-level combined force

Beijing is growing more and more sophisticated in deploying all elements of the three sea services. “In 2017 the Chinese conducted a coordinated operation made up of navy, coast guard and militias around the Philippine-occupied Thitu island,” Erickson said

Also that year, in what seemed to many like a dress rehearsal for future moves against the Senkaku/ Diaoyu island group, a fleet of 260 Chinese fishing boasts swarmed the waters around the islands, backed up by six Chinese coast guard vessels and regular navy vessels undoubtably lurking in the background.

The most famous seaborne militia unit is the Tanmen Maritime Militia based on Hainan Island. “The Hainan provincial government, adjacent to the South China Sea, ordered the building of 84 large militia fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage, which the militia received by the end of 2016, along with extensive subsidies to encourage frequent operations in the Spratly Islands. This particular PAFMM unit is also China’s most professional, paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities, and recruited from …veterans” the Pentagon noted in its report, as quoted by Ericson on his website. 

The Hainan-based unit has received accolades in the Chinese press and President Xi Jinping paid a personal visit in 2013, on the first anniversary of its biggest victory: the bloodless seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012.

The large number of vessels and crewmen the PAFMM places under Beijing’s control allows the Chinese to post lookouts on sensitive features throughout the disputed waters of the Spratlys without deploying officially flagged assets – coast guards, naval units or marines.

“Chinese forces are in and around all disputed features [in the South China Sea] not just the ones they occupy,” said former US Pacific Command commanding admiral and current U.S ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris in testimony before Congress.

The maritime militia has been heavily involved in recent confrontations over the disputed reefs, atolls and rocks that make up China’s vast but unrecognized South China Sea empire.

Chinese fishing boats played a prominent role in the showdown over the Chinese HYSY 981 oil rig , which Beijing caused to be build inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014. More than 260 fishing boats, guided by six coast guard vessel “swarmed” Japanese maritime territory near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the summer of 2017.

Also in August last year, nine militia vessels descended on Thitu island, the second largest feature of the Spratlys occupied by the Philippines. Chinese “fishermen” planted the Chinese flag on Sandy Kay, an unoccupied sand bar near Mischief Reef, one of the fortified Chinese occupied islands.

Conventional navies versus unconventional warfare

The conventional military forces of western democracies have customarily faced tremendous difficulties fighting land-based insurgents. In counter-insurgency operations, the level of force conventional armies are required to use must be downgraded, while the precision of targeting and firepower must be upgraded.

The risk of collateral damage, related public relations disasters and subsequent falls in public support for the armed forces and government policy are significant – as seen in Indochina, South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Likewise, the difficulties that democracies’ conventional naval forces – which are largely armed, equipped and trained to combat opposing navies – face in low-intensity maritime operations, where they must calibrate their use of force, are immense.

Britain’s Royal Navy discovered the difficulties in fighting without firing during the so-called “Cod War” against Icelandic fishing boats and patrol boats in the 1970s.  Similarly, the Islamic terrorist strike on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 showed how vulnerable conventional naval forces can be to low-tech, asymmetric threats – such as the fiberglass speedboat, laden with explosives, used in the successful and deadly attack.

21st century maritime hybrid warfare is still in its early stage. What assets, tactics and rules of engagement  US, Japanese, South Korean and Southeast Asian governments will use to combat this rising threat remains to be seen.

But while Vietnam has its own combative fishing fleet as a possible defensive measure, the fact that both Washington and Tokyo have now officially recognized the threat in official papers suggests that counter measures will be forthcoming.

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