Chinese ‘Fishing Militias’ Emerge As Biggest Threat To US Navy Warships Operating In South China Sea

The emergence of images of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea (SCS) days after China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels used water cannons on Philippine ship hints that China’s controversial maritime militia might play a role if a conflict erupts between Beijing and Manila and the US-led coalition.

The US, Australia, and Japan recently announced exercises in the SCS following the August 5 incident where six CCG ships and the fishing militia – often operating as China’s quasi-military and undeclared maritime border management arm – blocked two Philippine Navy-chartered civilian vessels. The civilian ships took supplies to the Philippine forces stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal.

Images posted on X (formerly Twitter) on August 16 showed a massive swarm of fishing vessels, possibly numbering several hundred, in the SCS sailing around a group of small islands. Academics and China watchers have long studied the maritime militia and have also been used in previous disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over contested territory.

Meanwhile, the drills by Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra will include helicopter carriers and three aircraft sailing in a display of force and taking on joint exercises. The US plans to deploy an aircraft carrier dubbed the USS America, while Japan would send one of the largest warships, a helicopter carrier titled JS Izumo.

The Royal Australian Navy would be sending its HMAS Canberra, which also transports helicopters, one of the two officials mentioned, adding that the joint drill was deliberately planned some months back.

‘Help The PLA Navy, DO NOT ATTACK’

Open source literature says that the ‘maritime militia’ is essentially a sea border management and enforcement arm, asserting China’s oceanic rights and claims. It does have a secondary warfighting role, where it does not directly take part in hostilities but undertakes surveillance, reconnaissance, and logistical roles.

Based on papers published in the RAND Corporation, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and official US military forums, it does not appear that the boats may be armed with missiles or weapons. Experts believe otherwise, saying China might decide to arm them if such a need arises.

Shuxian Luo and Jonathan G. Panter tracked the evolution of China’s fishing fleet and its place in the overall military-strategic scheme of things in a study published on the US Army University Press website.

Since its 2000 defense white paper, China has described the maritime militia as a “joint military-civilian land and sea border management system, headed by the military and with a sharing of responsibilities between the military and the civilian authorities.”

Since then, China has gradually transitioned from a relatively naval-intensive approach toward a “multiagent, division-of-labor method” in managing its maritime borders. Since 2005, China has preferred to employ the PLA Navy (PLAN) in background roles, relying instead on maritime law enforcement agencies and the maritime militia “as its frontline responses to contingencies.”

The fishing boats appear to have more military-logistical value than core combat utility. The PRC describes them as “an armed mass organization composed of civilians retaining their regular jobs,” a component of China’s armed forces, and an “auxiliary and reserve force” of the PLA. The militia assists the PLA “by performing security and logistics functions in war.”

This can involve supplying frontline warships on the high seas with ammunition or rations and taking a load of other vessels in the PLAN fleet meant for the task. Whether PLAN and the militia have exercised together for the purpose is not known. But it still “receives training from both the PLAN and CCG,” despite being separate from them.

This is to “perform tasks including but not limited to border patrol, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime transportation, search and rescue, and auxiliary tasks in support of naval operations in wartime,” said the report.

Origins & Previous Operations

An April 2020 article by defense analyst Derek J. Grossman for RAND Corporation explained how the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) – called such by the Department of Defense – has its roots in the 1950s agricultural collectivization, which included collectivization in fisheries as well.

Moreover, it was also influenced by the socio-economic thought and resultant military doctrine of the then Soviet Union, with whom China shared a tight ideological affinity.

A Chinese naval fleet during the exercise in the East China Sea. (Image: China Military Online)

It operates as a part of China’s Gray Zone tactics, where it establishes “a de facto Chinese operating presence in disputed areas – in effect, changing the facts on the ground, or at sea” – to challenge the opposing party’s territorial claims. These classic “gray zone” operations are designed to “win without fighting” by overwhelming the adversary with swarms of fishing vessels, usually bolstered from the rear with CCG and possibly PLAN warships.

Retired US Marine Corps officer and Asia Pacific defense expert, Col. Grant Newsham, says the boats “swarm” targets in the gray zone and make it “very difficult” for foreign coast guards and navies to operate in their own territories.

Grossman recounts earlier PAFMM operations where they displayed their military purpose. In January 1974, during the Paracel Islands dispute with South Vietnam, PAFMM forces demonstrated their significant contributions to island seizure campaigns.

“The presence of Chinese fishing vessels around the Paracels slowed South Vietnamese decision-making on using force against PAFMM and their response times to counter PLAN maneuvers. The additional time allowed Beijing to coordinate more effectively. When two fishing trawlers delivered 500 PLA troops to the Western Paracels, it resulted in the immediate surrender of the South Vietnamese soldiers there,” said the article.

Therefore, Beijing also learned that leveraging fishing militia was far less likely to trigger US intervention even when the threatened neighbor was a US ally. Consequently, the PAFMM has been observed in nearly every major PLAN and China Coast Guard (CCG) operation to harass maritime counter-claimants at disputed features or to seize the features. This included swarming the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which disputed with Japan in 1978, and ramping up their presence there in 2016.

They were also involved in the PRC seizing Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 1995 and 2012, respectively. Beijing also attempted to blockade Manila’s resupply to the Second Thomas Shoal in 2014, and since 2017, has harassed Filipino fishermen at Sandy Cay and nearby Thitu (Pagasa) Island.

The 2016 Senkaku incident with Japan demonstrates how the fishing fleet/maritime militias are “clearly a part of China’s broader military force,” according to Newsham. “They have operational, psychological, and political importance. In Japan’s case, they sent a message that ‘China can assert administrative control of the area anytime it wants, and there is nothing Japan can do about it,'” Newsham said while speaking to the EurAsian Times.

How Will Fishing Militias Be Used In War?

While the above instances are in ‘gray zone’ operations, the maritime militias have significant naval warfare utility but come with drawbacks and advantages. The cheap mass-manufactured fishing vessels, in high numbers using swarm tactics, can pose an asymmetric threat to warships, the way Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) naval forces bother the USN in the Persian Gulf.

Newsham’s assessment suggests that the Chinese have ambitious fishing fleet plans. “Maritime militias are the ‘muscle’ that operate with or around regular fishing boats and also with the CCG and as an augment to the PLAN. These boats can attack, ram, or sink just about any other fishing boat and even take on local coast guard ships.

“They can be armed with missiles and used for mine-laying, intelligence gathering, or electronic warfare. Regular Navy ships have tended to overlook ‘regular’ fishing boats. But when the Chinese are involved, this is a dangerous policy,” Newsham says.

But simultaneously, the fishing boats are kinematically less capable than the IRGC’s high-speed assault craft, which slows their maneuvering and increases the duration of exposure to be fired upon.

However, Alex Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), believes there is “less evidence” to suggest that the fishing militia’s utility might also include carrying anti-ship missiles and offensive weapons.

“Otherwise, they do operate both singularly and in coordination with the CCG and PLAN while being under the command of the Chinese military to patrol an area, perform surveillance, reconnaissance, confront a ship, undertake a blockade, or even cut the seismic cable of a foreign survey ship. They did this within the Vietnamese EEZ in 2011 and again in 2013,” Vuving said while speaking to the EurAsian Times.

Vuving adds that the fishing boats might be carrying basic surveillance, reconnaissance, and ELINT equipment and, in the future, might use civilian drones.

Another advantage fishing vessels have over small naval craft is the ‘plausible deniability’ associated with their origin and nature. Warship commanders will be constrained in attacking civilian targets whose military employment cannot be confirmed on the high seas.

“The PRC has exploited this ‘plausible deniability,’ arguing how they are just harmless fishing boats. That has worked very well with the Americans and others, inhibiting their response to date,” Newsham adds.

Consequently, it increases the likelihood that the fishing boats may not be fired upon. Thus, “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 prohibited altogether, a warship’s ability to conduct towed array and flight operations,” the AUP paper adds.

CPC’s Domestic Considerations

Chinese leadership may have also considered how fully militarizing such an action would qualify all fishing as legitimate targets for an adversary military and invite indiscriminate attacks, possibly triggering political backlash within China.

If not outrage from its citizens, it may lead to an opposite scenario where they may be calls for retaliatory and retributive attacks, giving rise to an entirely different domestic political variable and dynamic that the Communist Party of China (CPC) may be unable to control.