How The US Should Respond To China’s ‘Secret’ Weapon

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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China’s naval and coast guard ships in the South China Sea tend to draw the most attention, but a more troublesome force has been hiding in plain sight for years.

China deploys three types of ships to enact its will in the South China Sea. These include navy “grey hulls,” coast guard “white hulls,” and maritime militia “blue hulls,” Naval War College Professor Dr. Andrew Erickson explained during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing Thursday.

Naval vessels — labeled People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships — are noticeably threatening and escalatory, so China often limits their deployment.

Coast guard and maritime law enforcement ships are seen as China’s go-to units in the South China Sea. Between 2010 and 2016, Chinese coast guard units were involved in 71 percent of the 45 incidents. China’s coast guard vessels are growing in size and are, in some cases, navy “grey hulls” which have been painted white, according to Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Bonnie Glaser, who also spoke at the hearing.

The third sea force, China’s maritime militia, is a paramilitary force that operates on the front lines but hides behind the façade of civilian operations. They are often presented as fishing trawlers, but they rarely behave as such. These maritime militia “blue hulls” are waging a campaign of “grey zone aggression.”

“Make no mistake, these are state-organized, developed, and controlled forces operating under a direct military chain of command,” Erickson stated emphatically during the recent hearing.

China’s maritime militia has been involved in numerous incidents. Maritime militia units made appearances during the 2009 harassment of a U.S. surveillance ship, 2011 sabotage of two Vietnamese hydrographic vessels, 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal, 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters, and 2015 harassment of the U.S.S. Lassen during a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP).

“China is generating a worrying new wave … in leading maritime militia development,” Erickson mentioned. “The Sansha maritime militia was established to be a professional paramilitary force first and foremost, with fishing a secondary mission at best,” he added.

Several new, large maritime militia vessels with reinforced hulls, external rails for the mitigation of collision damage, and water cannons have been deployed in the South China Sea. Such features are not necessary for standard fishing trawlers, but they work well for ramming other vessels and spraying other ships with water to force them out of certain areas.

A 1978 report estimated that China’s maritime militia consisted of 750,000 personnel and 140,000 vessels, but the current size of this force is unknown. A 2010 defense white paper reported that China had 8 million militia units; the maritime militia would be a smaller subset of that group.

China’s maritime militia is typically positioned on the front line, with naval and coast guard vessels stationed nearby for protection. China uses these vessels to skirt claims that it is militarizing the South China Sea. “This is a force that thrives within the shadows of plausible deniability,” argued Erickson.

Despite the present administration’s emphasis on pivoting to Asia and deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the U.S. government has not addressed this lethal third sea force. Erickson explained, “American officials must reveal the third sea force’s true nature and deeds. China’s maritime militia can only be as deceptive and plausibly deniable as we allow it to be through our own silence and our own inaction.”

China’s maritime militia is not really a “secret” weapon. It is a force that has been operating in the open for quite some time.

An English-language China Daily article openly referred to the “less noticed force, China’s maritime militia” earlier this year. An image in the article showed men in military drab training with firearms equipped with bayonets, but the article claimed that “most of the maritime militia is made up of local fishermen.”

Maritime militia units have taken part in many air and naval exercises since 2014, according to Senior Colonel Xu Qingduan.

“The maritime militia is … a component of China’s ocean defense armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions,” explained Zhoushan Garrison Commander Zeng Pengxiang.

Erickson asserts that the U.S. should acknowledge China’s maritime militia as a paramilitary force, revoking civilian protections for these vessels in the event of a conflict.

The U.S. should also call out China’s maritime militia publicly and share information with countries affected by the third sea force, Erickson said in his testimony. Furthermore, the U.S. should make it clear that units which ignore repeated warnings from U.S. vessels will be treated as military units and dealt with accordingly.

Plausible deniability is a strength, yet unmasking it will expose the maritime militia force to vulnerabilities. “We have to make it clear that we are wise to Beijing’s game,” said Erickson.

The South China Sea is a national interest for the U.S., as well as American allies and partners. “The issue is really about having a rules-based order, that if there are no international rules everybody agrees to and abides by, then you have chaos and anarchy in a region where we have enormous interests,” Glaser explained. China appears to be undermining that order to create its own regional norms.

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