China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA - By CWP Fellow Alumni Andrew Erickson
Amid growing awareness that China’s Maritime Militia acts as a Third Sea Force which has been involved in international sea incidents, it is necessary for decision-makers who may face such contingencies to understand the Maritime Militia’s role in China’s armed forces. Chinese-language open sources reveal a tremendous amount about Maritime Militia activities, both in coordination with and independent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Using well-documented evidence from the authors’ extensive open source research, this report seeks to clarify the Maritime Militia’s exact identity, organization, and connection to the PLA as a reserve force that plays a parallel and supporting role to the PLA. Despite being a separate component of China’s People’s Armed Forces (PAF), the militia are organized and commanded directly by the PLA’s local military commands. The militia’s status as a separate non-PLA force whose units act as “helpers of the PLA” (解放军的助手)2 is further reflected in China’s practice of carrying out “joint military, law enforcement, and civilian [Navy-Maritime Law Enforcement-Maritime Militia] defense” (军警民联防). To more accurately capture the identity of the Maritime Militia, the authors propose referring to these irregular forces as the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM).
Like a tetherball, the PAFMM may be sent in many different directions when contacted by different players in the Chinese security space, but is often directed by the PLA and always remains tied to the PLA.
1. Leading elements of China’s Maritime Militia have already played frontline roles in manifold Chinese incidents and skirmishes with foreign mariners throughout the South China Sea.
2. The Militia is a key component of China’s Armed Forces and a part of what it calls the “People’s Armed Forces System” (人武系统).3
3. China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is therefore the most accurate name for this Third Sea Force of China.
4. Directed participation by PAFMM forces in international sea incidents or provocations occurs under the PLA chain of command, and sometimes also under the temporary command of the Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE). 5. The PAFMM is thus a state-organized, -developed, and -controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities.
Command and Control
China boasts the world’s largest fishing fleet. A portion of its thousands of fishing vessels, and the thousands of people who work on them and in related industries, are registered in the Maritime Militia.4 China’s PAFMM is an armed mass organization primarily comprising mariners working in the civilian economy who are trained and can be mobilized to defend and advance China’s maritime territorial claims, protect “maritime rights and interests,” and support the PLA Navy (PLAN) in wartime.
China’s People’s Armed Forces include the PLA, People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the militia, of which the PAF Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is a subset. As militia, members of the PAFMM typically retain their regular civilian employment while fulfilling their scheduled training and providing their service on demand for multifarious state-sponsored activities. To fully understand the PAFMM, it is critical to assess the institutional relationship between the PLA and the militia broadly.
Militia building typically involves a separate system in the armed forces, termed the “militia system” (民兵制度). The most recent official public description, in China’s 2013 Defense White Paper, states that they serve “as an assistant and backup force of the PLA.” While the militia is classified as a reserve force (后备力量), it should not be confused with the actual reserves of the PLA services (预备役部队). China builds the militia and the PLA reserves simultaneously as two separate components of its reserve force system.5 Authoritative Chinese writings typically refer to the militia as “China militia” (中国民兵), essentially a reserve force that plays a parallel and supporting role to the PLA. This confers three responsibilities: first, to support the PLA in defending China from
external threats, and second, to assist China’s domestic security forces to ensure social stability and to engage in disaster relief.
The militia has a military organizational structure and, despite being a separate component of China’s armed forces, is organized and commanded directly by the PLA’s local military commands.6 Its forces are subject to the “dual-responsibility system” (双重领导) at the core of civil-military leadership over local forces. This system is implemented through multiple institutionalized mechanisms whereby local military and civilian leaders serve in posts on each other’s Party Committees that oversee militia work. Civilian leadership involvement in local military commands’ work helps ensure ‘Party control of the gun’ and creates useful synergies by leveraging local civilian resources.7
Fundamentally, militia units are local forces levied by provincial governments to support national defense efforts. This is reflected in the interactions between local civilian and military leaders. National militia work policies are prescribed for the provinces by the Central Military Commission’s National Defense Mobilization Department, currently headed by PLA Generals. The PLA Provincial Military Districts (MD) send their militia force requirements to the provincial government/Party apparatuses, which then plan and fund construction of the militia in their social and economic plans.8 The local PLA commands (MDs, Military Subdistricts, and People’s Armed Forces Departments/PAFDs) then organize, train, and command the militia units. When required, other maritime-related government departments also help local military and government authorities to construct the PAFMM. For example, local branches of MLE agencies such as the Maritime Safety Administration and the China Coast Guard (CCG) provide safety or technical training pertinent to their departmental specialties.9 Both central and provincial governments provide funding for the militia.10 Local governments cover lost wages or damages incurred by militia personnel in training or missions. Since they help foot the bill for militia construction, local governments may call on the units if needed. The militia thus also provide a ready source of manpower for local governments in times of emergencies, such as natural disasters, law enforcement, and search and rescue efforts. This division of responsibilities requires civilian and military leaders to cooperate in militia building.
At the bottom tiers of the PLA local commands are the PAFDs, which link the PAFMM directly to the PLA chain of command. They are divided into county-level and grassroots-level PAFDs.11 The county-level PAFDs, through which PAFMM communications and directives—such as mobilization and mission orders—must typically pass, are manned by active duty PLA personnel. Below them, the grassroots PAFDs are manned by civilian cadres whose salaries are paid by local governments and sometimes work on a part-time basis. These grassroots PAFDs are the closest interface through which militia interact with the PLA command on a regular basis, as their direct managers for recruitment, planning, organization, training, and policy execution.
Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson1
China Maritime Report No. 1
China Maritime Studies Institute
U.S. Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island