At the end of last year, Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies released the 2023 edition of its annual China security report, which focuses on China’s quest for control of the cognitive domain and grey-zone situations. I, as one of the report’s authors, analyse how China uses its maritime militia and coastguard and what it aims to achieve.
In recent years, China has used paramilitary forces to put pressure on neighbouring countries that have conflicting claims with Beijing. Japan has been one of the targets over which China seeks to gain dominance by deliberately creating grey-zone situations at sea. For example, in 2016, shortly after China’s then defence minister, Chang Wanquan, visited the maritime militia of Zhejiang, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels swarmed into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, which Japan effectively controls, and made repeated incursions into Japan’s territorial waters. Australia, too, has been a target. During Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019, helicopters taking off from the Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Canberra were reportedly hit with lasers from Chinese fishing vessels.
There’s no conclusive evidence that China’s maritime militia were involved in these incidents. However, the Chinese government is clearly putting an emphasis on the militia to expand its maritime interests. Neighbouring countries therefore need to accurately understand China’s intention in its use of maritime militias.
“China’s maritime militia is not simply a group of fishermen.”
China’s maritime militia is under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the government and the military. The cadres of the local militia often hold positions in local governments and party organisations. For example, Wang Shumao, deputy commander of the maritime militia in Tanmen in Hainan province, who also serves as secretary of the CCP’s Tanmen branch, was elected as a delegate to the party’s 20th national congress.
The maritime militia is not simply a group of fishermen; it is composed of personnel with various backgrounds, including fishery processors, shipbuilders, port builders, medical workers, veterans, local government officials and members of the CCP.
The Chinese maritime militia have a variety of missions, such as daily fishery production activities, maritime guerrilla operations, cooperation with and support for maritime operations forces, and engagement in grey-zone activities at sea.
The organisations with which the maritime militia collaborates are likely to vary depending on the situation. It coordinates with official government vessels for asserting maritime rights and interests in relatively low-intensity grey-zone areas, such as communications operations in disputed areas and surveillance of foreign fishing and research vessels. It also works with military organisations to conduct intelligence operations in grey-zone areas and interdiction activities against foreign military vessels, as well as relatively intense paramilitary operations, such as support and replenishment for the military in wartime and participation in military operations. The Chinese government may believe that mobilising the maritime militia can control the escalation of a crisis, rein in the adversary, avoid military skirmishes, and expand China’s effective control of certain areas.
“Against a strong opponent, such as the US military, the militia can be deployed to obstruct and check its actions and communicate China’s intentions while avoiding military escalation.”
Following Xi’s 2013 visit to a maritime militia force in Hainan province, the Chinese government stepped up its support for maritime militia units operating in the South China Sea. Government authorities provide fuel subsidies and subsidies for the construction and repair of fishing vessels operating in disputed waters. The number of vessels dedicated to maritime militia duties has increased significantly in recent years. Installation of the BeiDou satellite navigation system is well underway, with 70,000 Chinese fishing vessels equipped with the system as of 2020.
Beijing’s increasing control over the maritime militia will allow the central government’s intentions to be reflected at the grassroots. This may give two policy options to the Chinese government. Against a strong opponent, such as the US military, the maritime militia can be deployed to obstruct and check its actions and communicate China’s intentions while avoiding military escalation. For example, in the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident in the South China Sea, the Chinese side reportedly interfered with US operations not with its navy, but by mobilising nearby Chinese fishing boats.
On the other hand, if a small country is the adversary, the maritime militia can carry out extreme provocations to lure the adversary’s armed forces to take military action and justify its own military retaliation, which could result in heightening overall tensions. Indeed, in the so-called Battle of the Paracel Islands in January 1974, when China seized the islands from South Vietnam, which until then had effectively controlled and occupied them, Chinese fishing boats suspected to be part of the maritime militia repeatedly engaged in provocative behaviour in the nearby waters even before military skirmishes began.
“It is important to make China realise that in a conflict in which Australia and Japan are actors, it will not gain any advantage from using its maritime militia.”
Which policy the Chinese government chooses will depend on its relationship with the opponent country. If it feels that inadvertent friction would be disadvantageous to it, it will not use the maritime militia to climb the escalation ladder. However, if it feels that using the maritime militia could expand China’s interests or deter the other side, it will be proactive in its use.
Given these policy implications, Australia and Japan need to signal to China that use of the maritime militia will be disadvantageous because it will increase distrust and weaken China’s relations with neighbouring countries. The Australian and Japanese governments have already expressed their concerns about China’s “dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia” in joint statements. It is also important to nullify the use of maritime militias and deal with dangerous activities by fishing vessels by deepening practical cooperation, such as expanding cooperation between Australian and Japanese maritime law enforcement agencies and joint military exercises.
In order to coexist with China, which is expanding its interests backed by military power, Australia and Japan need to communicate their interests and threat perception and avoid unnecessary accidents. At the same time, it is important to make China realise that in a conflict in which Australia and Japan are actors, it will not gain any advantage from using its maritime militia. This is a way for Australia and Japan to seek stable relationships with China at sea in the long term.
Masaaki Yatsuzuka is a senior fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.