Beijing has a navy it doesn't even admit exists, experts say. And it's swarming parts of the South China Sea
Hong Kong (CNN)They’ve been dubbed China’s “Little Blue Men,” an allegedly Beijing-controlled maritime militia that analysts say could be hundreds of boats and thousands of crew members strong.
China doesn’t acknowledge their existence and when questioned, refers to them as a “so-called maritime militia.”
But Western experts say the alleged militia is an integral part of Beijing’s efforts to exert its territorial claims in the South China Sea and beyond. They claim its blue-painted vessels and their crews — allegedly funded and controlled by the People’s Liberation Army — can quickly bring a Chinese presence so large around disputed reefs and islands they are almost impossible to challenge without triggering a military confrontation.
The apparent militia made headlines last month when more than 200 Chinese fishing boats crowded around Whitsun Reef, a Philippine possession in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea.
Analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore say they’ve never seen a Chinese operation of this size before.
“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, both senior fellows at the IISS, wrote last week on the organization’s blog.
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 leave the area, which it maintains is in exclusive economic zone.
Beijing countered that the boats, which numbered 220 at one point, according to the Philippine government, were simply escaping rough seas by moving within a lagoon formed by the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef, which Beijing calls Niu’e Jiao and claims as 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 said.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila was more blunt. “There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged,” it said.
The diplomatic back and forth between Philippine and Chinese officials continued last week, with the Chinese Embassy in Manila calling remarks by the Philippine defense secretary regarding the Chinese boats as “wanton” and “perplexing.” The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs fired back, deploring the Chinese Embassy’s statement, reminding China its diplomats are “guests” in Manila and pledging to issue daily diplomatic protests while Chinese vessels are in the Philippines’ maritime zones.
How does the Chinese Maritime Militia allegedly work?
Despite Chinese government denials, there is 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, told CNN. “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.”
Some experts have taken to referring to the militia as “Little Blue Men,” a reference to the color of their boats’ hulls and to Russia’s “Little Green Men,” soldiers in unmarked green uniforms who infiltrated Crimea before 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 said.
“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 leading American experts on the subject, 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 integrated with China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest with more than 187,000 boats, Erickson told CNN, but the actual number of armed boats remains unclear to Western experts.
Whatever their ranks, experts say they can lead large flotillas of actual fishing boats in actions to further Chinese government policies and territorial claims — including those 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 told CNN.
A 2020 US Defense Department report on the Chinese military mentions only 84 actual maritime militia boats, all assigned to a unit operating out of Sansha City on Hainan island, in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The unit, established in 2016, gets frequent subsidies to operate in the Spratly Islands, the report said.
“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 said.
But Erickson told CNN the boats seen around Whitsun Reef in recent weeks looked different from those in the Hainan unit, suggesting full-time militia boats are greater in number than previously thought.
Erickson and colleague Ryan Martinson, writing in the journal Foreign Policy late last month, said tracking of some of the Chinese boats at Whitsun using open-source intelligence shows they came from Taishan in China’s southern Guangdong province.
At least seven “enormous” trawlers that were in the Whitsun lagoon could be part of “the most advanced PAFMM unit yet developed and deployed,” Erickson and Martinson wrote.
Using automatic identification system data, they said the boats at Whitsun had patrolled the Union Banks, where Whitsun Reef is, as well as other Spratly Islands features like the Subi and Mischief reefs, both of which have been built 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 shows just how frequently the unit has been in the Spratly Islands chain over the past year.
As of March 29, only 44 boats remained in the Whitsun Reef lagoon, CNN affiliate CNN Philippines reported, citing a statement from the Philippine government’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.
The rest had scattered to other contested reefs and islands in nearby waters, the statement added.
What is the purpose of a maritime militia?
The concept of a maritime militia, or an irregular naval force, allows China to make territorial claims in huge numbers without ever involving the People’s Liberation Army proper, Western experts say.
Even if lead boats like those mentioned by Erickson and Martinson are relatively small in number, they can spearhead flotillas in the hundreds — 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 are now essentially occupying Whitsun Reef by the mere presence of their vessels,” Batongbacal said in an interview with National Public Radio.
“That’s actually the objective of the Chinese strategy, to establish de facto control and dominance over the entire South China Sea through these incremental moves.”
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 are cheap, fishing vessels will always 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 year.
So even real, unarmed fishing boats acting under the leadership of maritime militia vessels can be an effective military force.
“Instead of a kinetic threat, Chinese fishing vessels present more of a disruptive one. Deployed in even limited numbers, fishing boats can inhibit, if not prohibit altogether, a warship’s ability to conduct” anti-submarine warfare and flight operations with its helicopters, Luo and Panter wrote.
From a strategic standpoint, “challenging these vessels is dangerous,” 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, aware of Chinese fishing vessels’ possible government affiliation, might hesitate to engage with them in a way that could provoke a PRC (Beijing central government) 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 strength of the maritime militia is its deniability, which allows its vessels to harass and intimidate foreign civilian craft and warships while leaving China room to deescalate by denying its affiliation with these activities,” Luo and Panter wrote.
But with those overwhelming numbers for China comes risk as well, the analysts said.
“The same factors that make the maritime militia a deniable force (its civilian crews and dual-use technology) also raise the risk of accidents and escalations,” Luo and Panter wrote.
“This is a toxic mix: due to the maritime militia’s deniability and the core interests at stake, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has a high incentive to employ it, but the more frequent its operations, the greater the likelihood of interactions with US vessels that could spin out of control.”
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 concerns 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 “deliberately distorted facts, exaggerated the situation in the region and attempted to sow discord between China and other littoral countries,” 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.
But in 1974, as China fought with then-US ally South Vietnam over control of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the use of fishing vessels in combat operations proved their worth, Grossman wrote.
The PLA Navy used two fishing trawlers to deliver 500 Chinese troops to the disputed islands as the presence of civilian Chinese fishing boats around them slowed South Vietnamese military decision making, the RAND analyst said.
Once the Chinese troops were in place, the South Vietnamese garrison surrendered.
“A key lesson learned for Beijing was that leveraging fishing militia forces was far less likely to trigger 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.
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 international law, especially the UNCLOS to which China is a party, is appalling,” Lorenzana said in statement.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea.”
China has also used fishing boats to take on the US Navy directly, 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 history is a good indication of what to expect in the future, then Beijing is likely to double down on the PAFMM in virtually any scenario imaginable. That means it should be a force to be reckoned in the years to come,” 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 powerful demonstration of China’s willingness to run risks by assembling such a large concentration of vessels in a highly contested area,” they wrote.
“If these analytic assumptions are accurate, China’s military leadership will be evaluating the performance of its most recent 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 highly effective in utilizing non-militarized coercion tools. Beijing has not been keen to give up these tools, which it sees as incurring limited escalation risks with neighboring countries,” Williams wrote on the Lawfare blog of the Brookings Institution.
Essentially, Beijing wants to keep Washington — and its South China Sea neighbors — guessing.
“It would be an overstatement … to claim that the Chinese military establishment relishes crises. Many PLA thinkers are highly sensitive to the destabilizing risks of military crises,” Williams wrote.
But China, he said, sees “ambiguous signaling as a source of … deterrence.”
Essentially, if an adversary is constantly trying to assess intentions, it isn’t taking action