COLUMN | Chinese paramilitary forces to the fore as Beijing ramps up territorial claims [Naval Gazing]

A China Coast Guard ship obstructs the Philippine Coast Guard response vessel BRP Malabrigo as it provided support during a Philippine Navy operation near Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, June 30, 2023. (Photo: Philippine Coast Guard)

Although collisions, confrontations, and harassment in the South China Sea (SCS) often make the headlines these days, the reach and depth of China’s strategy of intrusive patrolling as Beijing seeks to establish a persistent and dominant presence in the sea are not widely understood.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) maintains that what it says are long-established clams to much of the SCS take precedence over all other nations’ claims.

Strategy of intrusive and increasingly assertive patrolling

Some analysts believe that Beijing’s quest for regional maritime control is motivated by a desire to eventually re-establish old tributary trade relationships with smaller Asian countries. However, the Chinese maintain the view that “foreign forces” are simply interlopers in Chinese-owned sera areas.

Beijing deploys two paramilitary forces to back up its maritime ambitions, namely, the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM).

Recent years have seen the CCG progressively focus its intrusive patrolling on the sea areas around Scarborough Shoal, Vanguard Bank, Lucenia Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, and Thitu Island in the SCS. Beijing seems to have chosen Second Thomas Shoal as its prime target, as chartered civilian boats carrying stores for the Philippine Marine Corps contingent manning the old Philippine Navy (PN) landing ship Sierra Madre, that was grounded as an observation platform in 1998, and their escorting Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels have been seriously hampered, including being rammed by CCG ships.

In September 2023, China even installed a maritime barrier near Scarborough Shoal. It was cut by a PCG diver, and subsequently removed.

CCG patrol ships are now also maintaining a regular presence within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, with a focus upon prime fishing and mineral extraction areas. Furthermore, CCG forays into the Japanese-claimed Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands continue.

Also increasingly prominent are “fishing vessels” of the PAFMM. Typically, large numbers of PAFMM assets swarm areas in which CCG vessels are conducting intrusive patrols and often remain static, drifting, or at anchor for prolonged periods, although sometimes they take on a more proactive stance.

Chinese paramilitary maritime forces-background

The CCG was formed in 2013 from the merger of four existing maritime forces and is part of the People’s Armed Police, which, since 2018, has been under the direct command of the Chinese Communist Party and is known to have close links with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is Beijing’s prime maritime enforcement agency and has an estimated inventory of about 250 vessels.

The service’s offshore capability is provided by some 14 classes of patrol ships with each vessel displacing between 1,150 and 12,000 tonnes. There is also a plethora of smaller vessels for coastal patrol.

Most of the patrol ships nowadays have a warlike profile, often including turreted guns on their forecastles. Some of the larger ships are helicopter-capable.

Also on strength are two former People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) Type 053 frigates and more than 20 ex-PLA-N Type 056 corvettes.

China has operated a Maritime Militia since 1949, and such forces have regularly operated in support of the PLA-N. The past decade has seen Beijing place great emphasis upon upgrading the PAFMM. Its fleet of steel-built, over-powered “fishing vessels” continues to expand, with many of the vessels reportedly being constructed on Hainan Island.

PAFMM crews are reportedly well paid, and the organisation is known to recruit both fishermen and ex-military personnel.

Multi-national responses

The upgrading of regional maritime forces in response to China’s maritime strategy continues. Notably, the PCG, which has already received numerous patrol assets from Japan, recently signed up for five new large multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) to be built in Japan and paid for by a loan from Tokyo. The PN has commissioned a pair of South Korean-built frigates, has corvettes from the same source on order, and is commissioning Israeli-built, missile-armed fast attack craft.

Meanwhile, in another significant move, Vietnam has received a Russian-designed missile corvette from India.

A rolling programme of regional multi-national naval exercises, many of them involving US Navy units, is underway, while in November 2023, joint patrolling in the South China Sea by Philippine and Australian and Philippine and American warships commenced. Assets known to have taken part in joint patrols so far include the US Navy littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords, the Royal Australian Navy frigate Toowoomba, and the PN frigate Jose Rizal and patrol ship Gregorio del Pilar.

Washington is also looking at ways to help the Filipinos to bolster the steadily-disintegrating Sierra Madre. Also, 2024-2025 is due to see deployments to the region by Italian, French, German and UK naval task groups in high-profile demonstrations of the importance that European governments attach to the maintenance of unhindered access to international maritime trade routes.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.