As China becomes increasingly forceful in the maritime realm with reference to multiple maritime disputes in its “near seas”, the focus primarily remains restricted on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its naval modernisation. However, a lesser-known, discussed, and indiscernible sea force that surreptitiously is being developed by China is its maritime militia. This is an armed mass group of military-trained personnel constituting as a reserve force mandated mainly to support the PLA-Navy. The Chinese government and the PLA have begun granting greater credence to this irregular maritime force by means of extensive financial support and grants.
Most of China’s maritime militia is made up of local fishermen, whose strength, according to China Fisheries Authority in 2013, was nearly 21 million, making it the highest globally. The proportion of the maritime militia has registered a tenfold increase over the past two years, from less than 2% in 2013 to more than 20% in 2015. This is in addition to the nearly 439,000 motorised fishing vessels that can operate at sea in conjunction with the Beihai Fleet, Donghai Fleet and Nanhai Fleet, which the PLA-Navy commands.
State-run and controlled publications from Beijing have acknowledged on record that China’s maritime militia works alongside the PLA-Navy “to strengthen its combat capability and operational requirements”. Take for instance PLA’s Beihai City Military Command in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (in South Central China, which borders Vietnam).
By absorbing Navy veterans and experienced sailors, the Beihai maritime militia, particularly, is equipped for purposes including transport, reconnaissance and emergency equipment repair units in areas with a strong shipbuilding industry.
This resultantly enables the city’s maritime militia to play a vital role in various maritime drills organised by the PLA-Navy.
Maritime militia receives frequent training, and possesses advanced skills for carrying out missions at sea, as opposed to those in the less active (ordinary) militia. Andrew Erickson underlines the significance of maritime militia being distinct from both China’s coastal militia (which is shore-based) and its naval reserve, although some coastal militia units have been transformed into maritime militia units. Expectedly, China has begun downplaying the role of its maritime militia in so far as asserting claims over multiple maritime disputes and “rights protection” issues are concerned.
What, however, does not go unobserved, is the maritime militia’s activities and training in the strategically important, southern-most province of Hainan and the Sansha city in it (which administers vast island groups and surrounding waters in the South China Sea). Apart from administering Sansha, Hainan is home to the Yulin Naval Base and its submarine bunker, along with a host of conventional and nuclear submarines. The Maritime Militia Company established in July 2013 came close on the heels of Xi Jinping’s momentous visit to the remote fishing village of Tanmen in Qionghai County when he visited Hainan Province in April 2013. The trip proved instrumental in boosting the growth of the militia in Hainan.
The local government, Party, and the PLA, jointly declared legislation in 2014 that would fund local counties to recruit maritime militias. Besides, the prefecture-level city Jiangmen in the southeast Chinese province, Guangdong (bordering Hong Kong and Macau) is organising sea-operation exercises for local militiamen to notch up their combat capability.
These developments, if collated and reviewed collectively, highlight that China is concentrating heavily, in terms of resources and capabilities, towards the South China Sea, as it becomes the locus of a brewing conflict between China and contending claimants—Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. By virtue of building three airstrips on the Spratly Islands, the PLA is upping the ante to buttress its claims over the South China Sea. The region, most certainly, is likely to witness greater politico-strategic rivalry given that the United States has deployed destroyer ships on missions in the region to checkmate a perennially assertive China.
Emerging here clearly is that great power diplomacy not necessarily remains soft-sided always.
Rather, it is a deft mix of hard tactics rolled up in yielding policy pronouncements.
Stemming from this construct, China’s approach and take on the South China Sea is gradually, yet firmly, becoming far more inflexible. And, it is only a matter of time when the maritime militia will become a critical and vital support organ for the PLA-Navy along with the Coast Guard in a combined naval strategy to advance Chinese position in multiple maritime disputes in the East China Sea, South China Sea, whilst simultaneously bolstering China’s naval presence and role in the Indian Ocean Region at large.