The U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress, released in August, detailed military and security developments of the Chinese armed forces and drew attention to the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM), a weaponized fishing fleet funded by Beijing - a new asset for low-intensity maritime confrontations, and a forward screen for its growing military force in the South China Sea.
“The PAFMM is a subset of China’s national militia, an armed reserve force of civilians available for mobilization,” the Pentagon noted. “The PAFMM plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting."
The “maritime militia" played significant roles in many military operations and incidents in the last decade, including the 2009 harassment of the USNS IMPECCABLE, the 2012 Scarborough Reef standoff, the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig standoff, and chaos around the Senkaku Islands in 2016.
In August 2017, China used the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and PAFMM ships to patrol around Thitu Island, in response to the Philippines’ reported plan to upgrade the runway on the Island.
Andrew Erickson, a professor at the US Naval War College, said the Pentagon performed a signal service by officially defining the threat of fishing vessels that lurk off the waters of China, which was also spoken about in the Japanese Defense Ministry’s annual white paper, “Defense of Japan, 2018."
The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, recognizes the PAFMM as a legitimate threat. “Let’s be careful not to characterize them as a ragtag group of fishermen,” he said in a 2017 interview. “I think they have clear command and control; they are not acting randomly.”
The Chinese maritime militia is unique. “Only Vietnam is known to have a roughly equivalent force, but it is not in the same league as China,” said Erickson. “Beijing has what is clearly the world’s largest and most capable maritime militia.”
While the total amount of fishing boats in the Maritime Militia is unknown, the Pentagon noted that the Hainan provincial government, ordered 84 large fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage, were delivered to Hainan militia unit at the end 2016. This particular PAFMM unit is also China’s most professional, paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities, and recruited from …veterans” the Pentagon noted in its report.
"Although unarmed, many boats reportedly have strengthened their hulls for ramming attacks: Several Vietnamese boats were rammed and sunk in the dispute caused by China erecting an oil-drilling rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and in 2016, Korean coast guard boats capsized after being rammed. Some Chinese fishing vessels have been equipped with water cannons, and crew members carry hand-to-hand weapons to counter boarding: A South Korean coast guard was fatally knifed in the Yellow Sea while boarding a Chinese fishing boat engaged in illegal fishing in 2011," said Asia Times.
Asia Times refers to the Maritime Militia as Beijing's "third fleet," giving the communist regime the ability to encircle a conflict zone with hundreds of fishing boats, turning any confrontation with the enemy into a chaotic situation. Asia Times said this could cause serious problems for democracies, as the US, Japanese and South Korean and Southeast Asia vessels may be fearful of sinking “civilian” boats.
Erickson said Beijing is becoming more and more sophisticated in deploying all elements of the three sea services. “In 2017 the Chinese conducted a coordinated operation made up of navy, coast guard and militias around the Philippine-occupied Thitu island."
Also in 2017, a fleet of 260 Chinese fishing boats swarmed the waters around Senkaku/ Diaoyu island group, backed up by six Chinese coast guard vessels and navy vessels that kept their distance overseeing the operation.
The massive fleet of fishing vessels under Beijing’s control allows the Chinese government to post lookouts on sensitive features throughout the disputed waters of the Spratlys without deploying large naval assets – coast guards, naval units or marines.
“Chinese forces are in and around all disputed features [in the South China Sea] not just the ones they occupy,” said former US Pacific Command commanding admiral and current U.S ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris in testimony before Congress.
Asia Times said the militia has been heavily involved in recent confrontations over the disputed islands that make up Beijing's South China Sea empire.
To sum up, the 21st-century of maritime hybrid warfare has been recognized by China. It has successfully "fleeted" hundreds of civilian fishing vessels with militia units that are actively patrolling the waters of the South China Sea all the way up to the Sea of Japan. This is the first line of defense for the "communist" regime and a new type of warfare that conventional navies like the US, Japan, and South Korea have very limited war scenarios on how to engage. This could be problematic because if a conventional navy attacked a militia fishing ship, it would be considered an attack on a civilian vessel, and a potential PR nightmare for that country.