China's Uniformed, Navy-Trained Fishing "Militia"

Image courtesy CIMSEC / National Defense

By CIMSEC 2016-05-17 21:11:07

[By Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson]

The CIMSEC series on the leading maritime militias of Hainan Province continues with this second installment. In part one we discussed the role Tanmen’s maritime militia played in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident that resulted in a Chinese takeover of the feature from the Philippines. This article will probe the Tanmen militia’s organization and leadership, the challenges and opportunities associated with its management and motivation, and will raise the possibility that the Tanmen militiamen’s mission at Scarborough Shoal may not yet be finished.

After Xi Jinping’s visit in 2013, Tanmen Township quickly became ground zero in China’s discussion about the future direction of militia work. The township was host to the 2014 National Border and Coastal Defense Work Conference. Additionally, Tanmen People’s Armed Forces Department (PAFD) Head and Maritime Militia Company Commander Zhang Jiantang attended the Fifth National Conference on Border and Coastal Defense Construction Work in Beijing in June 2014. There he received awards on behalf of his company for its bravery in defending China’s maritime sovereignty. One month prior, he and his men were involved in one of the most volatile showdowns between Vietnam and China since their border war in 1979, the Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY)-981 Oil Rig Standoff of 2 May-15 July 2014.

On 6 June 2014, Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense newspaper The People’s Army stated that China was maintaining between 110 and 115 vessels around China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) HYSY-981 oil rig. This included 35-40 coast guard vessels, 30 transport ships and tugboats, 35-40 “fishing vessels,” and four naval ships. These forces assembled to form what the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to in English as a “cordon” around the oil rig, effectively preventing Vietnamese vessels from approaching the platform. For China’s maritime forces it was an escort mission to protect HYSY-981 during its operations. In early May, the Chinese government issued Maritime Notice 14034 warning foreign vessels not to enter within three nautical miles of the location of the rig at these coordinates (15°29’58.0”N 111°12’06.0”E). However, Vietnamese reports state China expanded its cordon radius and would confront approaching vessels 9.5-10 nautical miles out from the rig. It appears that Vietnam’s fishing vessels could not fish near the platform because of heavy Chinese interference, so they opted to fish outside of the Chinese cordoned area to display presence in their “traditional fishing grounds.” They were not safe, however, as vessels from China’s maritime militia sallied forth to repel the Vietnamese vessels, using non-military forces against non-military forces as a deliberate means of preventing escalation. One report describes Chinese fishing vesselQiongdongfang 11209 (???11209) ramming and sinking Vietnamese fishing vessel No. 90152 during an encounter 17 nautical miles from the rig, where Vietnamese fishing vessels were surrounded by 40 Chinese fishing vessels.

News reports put the number of Chinese vessels present in the area around HYSY-981 at twice that of Vietnam’s. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that by early June there were as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels in the area. While the number of these vessels present fluctuated over the course of the confrontation, Hainan’s key maritime militia units accounted for many of the Chinese fishing vessels operating on the front lines. Tanmen Maritime Militia Company Deputy Commander Wang Shumao’s web profile on the Qionghai City government website chronicles his force’s mobilization to protect the cordoned zone surrounding HYSY-981 in May 2014. Wang led ten of the company’s militia vessels and 200 militiamen to the platform’s location south of Triton Island to block Vietnamese attempts to disrupt the platform’s operations. Sanya’s maritime militia contributed 29 fishing vessels to the oil rig’s defense. This number, combined with the 10 sent by the Tanmen militia, correlates closely with Vietnamese estimates of the number of Chinese fishing vessels present. While detailed discussion of the fact is beyond this article’s scope, it is clear that maritime militia units from other areas also participated in this incident. The aforementioned Qiongdongfang 11209, for instance, hails from Dongfang City, located on Hainan Province’s western coast between Sanya and Danzhou cities. Dongfang City established its first maritime militia unit on 8 May 2013, with a smaller contingent of 64 fishermen. The sheer scale of the “rights protection” action to defend the cordon around HYSY-981 was surely unprecedented for new units and the more experienced Tanmen maritime militia alike.

In his interviews with the Tanmen fishermen, Zhang Hongzhou of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies found that although many of the fishing vessels defending the rig were from Tanmen, many fishermen actually did not respond to the Chinese government’s request to mobilize, citing a lack of incentive to do so. To be sure, if a more robust incentive structure were instituted, perhaps a greater number of Chinese fishing vessels would have turned out to completely envelope the oil rig. However, our research indicates that the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company was not simply requested to go, but was ordered to do so—and indeed met its obligations. Local military and government officials likely recognize the difference in reliability between disciplined militia forces and other fishermen and will continue to act accordingly in the future. Furthermore, many Chinese reports on the maritime militia indicate that entry into the militia requires members to submit “National Defense Obligation Registration Certificates” (?????????) that are reviewed annually. Abandoning one’s duties as a member of the Maritime Militia could result in punishments or in some cases criminal prosecution, according to China’s “Military Service Law,” which specifies rules governing the service of active duty military, People’s Armed Police, and the reserves. Maritime Militia-specific punishments might include fines, withheld fuel subsidies, suspension of trips, or revocation of fishing licenses as described in an article written by the Zhoushan Garrison Commander in Zhejiang Province in 2014. Although it remains unclear to what extent such requirements are actually enforced, militia may respond better to encouragement from local leaders in the form of incentives, whereas overly zealous punishments could dampen the willingness to serve among this amalgamation of irregular volunteers.

tanmen 2Tanmen maritime militia report for duty in uniform, likely a training exercise. Source: National Defense (July 2013).

Certainly, economic incentives matter in multiple ways. Given overall trends, in which a rising tide of economic growth and government investment may be channeled to raise all boats, officials in key localities of Hainan Province are able to foster maritime militia construction while furthering their other goals. Tanmen Township, for its part, has leveraged its contributions to China’s pursuit of “maritime rights and interests” to expand the scope of its infrastructure and economy. This includes constructing the new Tanmen Bridge to the prosperous Bo’ao Township and developing the clam and turtle industries and tourism. The aim is to transcend exclusive reliance on Tanmen’s fishing industry, while diversifying its services. Still the very picture of a small, sleepy fishing village on the outside, Tanmen has slowly expanded its infrastructure for the fishing industry. Approved by the provincial government, the Tanmen Harbor expansion project broke ground in late August 2006, turning Tanmen fishing harbor into a “core fishing port.” The project entailed dredging out the harbor, greatly expanding the dock space, and expanding shore-side facilities to support the fishing fleetsThrough heavy central and local government investment, Tanmen Harbor now reportedly has capacity for one thousand 100-ton fishing vessels. A February 2015 government report put Tanmen’s marine fishing fleet at 786 vessels, with 174 large and medium distant-water vessels and 612 small near-seas vessels. Enjoying great political and financial support, Tanmen harbor is well positioned to support the region’s fishing industry as well as its own burgeoning fishing communities.

Current Force Structure

As with so much else in China, the Party’s leadership role—considered critical to control of the militia and the fishing community more broadly—is central to the Tanmen Militia’s employment in the HYSY-981 incident and to its broader development. To facilitate Party oversight of the Tanmen Militia, a “South China Sea Fisheries Party Branch” was created in 2006 to organize the Party members among the Tanmen fishermen and the vessel owners. The position of Party Chief in this organization is held concurrently by a Tanmen Township Party Committee member. This branch organizes rescue and self-defense training events for the fishermen and implements a system of Party control aboard each fishing vessel. This entails a requirement that there be at least one party member per vessel and the formation of a temporary “Party Small Group” (PSG, ???) out of 5-7 vessels that go to sea. These are formed to manage both the fishermen and the militia, ensuring a Party presence for supervising fishermen’s behavior during regular trips out to sea. Each PSG will have a single experienced Party member or vessel captain in command. During Luo Baoming’s 2012 visit to Tanmen Township to inspect the fishing community, he publicly made a radio call at the fisheries management station to one such PSG operating at Johnson South Reef. On the receiving end, PSG leader Shi Kexiong thanked the Central Party enthusiastically for supporting his group’s work. The conversation was a signal to the Tanmen fishermen of the increasing importance of their efforts to advance China’s maritime rights and interests and of the necessity of a Party presence aboard their vessels, even as far away as the Spratlys.

In keeping with China’s parallel Party-State and military structure, Tanmen’s maritime militia members are also directly subject to thePLA chain of command. The principal civilian and military leaders of Tanmen Township, Qionghai City, and Hainan Province are all responsible for militia work within their respective jurisdictions. This dual-responsibility system is at the core of Chinese civil-military integration efforts and ensures ‘Party control of the gun’—in this case, the local military forces including the maritime militia. The Tanmen Maritime Militia is currently led by the Commander Zhang Jiantang (also head of Tanmen PAFD), and Political Instructor Pang Fei, the current Tanmen Township Party Chief. The Tanmen grassroots-level PAFD manages the maritime militia directly and reports back to the Qionghai City county-level PAFD, which is manned by active duty PLA personnel. These PAFDs are at the bottom-tier of the provincial military headquarters system that manages local forces.

The Qionghai City government website description of Tanmen’s involvement in the HYSY-981 incident suggests that on-site authority is delegated to the company’s deputy commander Wang Shumao, who reports back to his superiors in Tanmen. As we previously documented in our article on Sanya City’s maritime militia, the Guangzhou Military Region command mobilized the local forces of the Hainan Military District. It has become clear that a mobilization order also made its way down the chain to the Tanmen PAFD, which then gave its company orders to deploy and defend the HYSY-981 oil rig. While details of the Tanmen Maritime Militia’s specific involvement in that incident remain unclear, the overall process of its participation illuminates how China’s maritime militia is mobilized for maritime rights protection.

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.