The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning participates in a naval parade near Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong province, on April 23, 2019.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning participates in a naval parade near Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong province, on April 23, 2019. MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The Spratly Islands, occupied by five different claimants, are the most hotly contested part of the South China Sea. Thanks to the harbors and supporting infrastructure Beijing constructed on its outposts there over the last five years, most vessels operating around the Spratlys are Chinese. And most of those are at least part-time members of China’s official maritime militia, an organization whose role Beijing frequently downplays but that is playing an increasingly visible role in its assertion of maritime claims.
A small cohort of analysts continue to cast doubt on the existence and activities of the maritime militia. The best-intentioned offer alternative explanations for the curious behaviors of the Chinese fishing fleets, though those don’t stand up to scrutiny. Other writers, especially those affiliated with Chinese institutions and state media, seek to present an alternate version of reality by artfully cropping satellite imagery, cherry-picking data, or simply ignoring the facts and attacking the motives of those presenting evidence of militia activities.
This is unsurprising—the purpose of employing a maritime militia is to keep aggression below the level of military force and complicate the responses of other parties, in this case chiefly the other claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan) as well as the United States, by hiding behind a civilian facade. Without deniability, the militia loses much of its value. That gives China a strong incentive to dissemble and deny evidence of its actions. But that evidence speaks for itself.
The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia is not a secret. Article 36 of the China Military Service Law of 1984, revised in 1998, calls for the militia “to undertake the duties related to preparations against war, defend the frontiers and maintain public order; and be always ready to join the armed forces to take part in war, resist aggression and defend the motherland.” China’s 2013 defense white paper enhanced the maritime militia’s role in asserting sovereignty and backing up military operations. This is the naval analogue to China’s larger and better-known land-based militia forces, which operate in all Chinese theater commands, supporting and under the command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the maritime militia in Tanmen township on Hainan, China’s southernmost province, and labeled it a model for others to follow. Andrew Erickson, Conor Kennedy, and Ryan Martinson at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College have spent years documenting the activities of the maritime militia, including extensive acknowledgment by Chinese authorities and many instances in which militia members have publicly discussed their activities.