I’m directing this column to our national and local leaders whose duty is to defend the country, protect the people, and secure our natural resources. There’s a need to adapt mindsets to a deteriorating security situation in the South China Sea — fueled by China’s spurious claims of “indisputable sovereignty” over this vital body of water — by thinking, speaking, and acting as one united leadership to confront the external and internal threats to our national security.
China’s “people’s war” has been applying its “cabbage strategy” utilizing three layers to occupy the SCS, and key features in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of littoral nations, like the Philippines and Vietnam. It calls for surrounding a contested area with swarms of blue hulls (Chinese Maritime Militia, or CMM, masquerading as fishing vessels) backed up by white hulls (China Coast Guard [CCG]) and gray hulls (warships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy [PLAN]), such that the targeted area is essentially like a morsel wrapped in layers of cabbage.
The CMM is a subset of China’s national militia, an armed reserve force of civilians available for mobilization to perform basic support duties. Its coercive activities adhere to China’s broader military doctrine stating that “confrontational operations short of war can be an effective means of accomplishing political objectives.” It trains alongside the PLAN and CCG in military garb with rifles and bayonets. It’s based in Sansha City in the Paracels Islands and is equipped with purpose-built trawlers with reinforced hulls for ramming and sophisticated communications suites for spying. It is a fast response unit used to confront any threat to its imagined claims. (See the writings of Andrew S. Erickson, Professor of Strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute).
Commissar of the Hainan Armed Forces Department Xing Jincheng has been quoted as saying that the CMM is responsible for conducting “sovereignty operations” and defending China’s “ancestral seas” — defined as territorial waters belonging to China since ancient times — to ensure combat readiness for the purpose of denying intruders access to its occupied areas. In 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal ruled that its claim was spurious with no legal or historical basis.
For a long time, affected littoral states failed to comprehend the role of the CMM in China’s cabbage strategy. Their coast guards, navies, or fishery protection units find it difficult to judge whether they’re facing ordinary fishermen or the CMM. And so, they act with restraint avoiding force that might result in casualties, accusations of human rights abuses, and conflict escalation. China’s taken full advantage of our restraint by pushing the envelope while evading serious confrontations as it illegally occupies more maritime territory.
The US has finally realized that the CMM is a fighting force on the front-line of China’s quest to control the seas. It’s a weapon that has operated in the shadow of plausible deniability for years. The Pentagon says the CMM is a covert fleet of fishing trawlers engaged in “low-intensity” coercion in maritime disputes to wreak havoc in targeted areas. It’s state-organized, developed and controlled, operating under a direct military chain of command.