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Hainan's Maritime Militia: A Standing Vanguard

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Sansha Maritime Militia members receive weapons training from the Hainan Provincial Military District, 2013 (image courtesy cnr.cn)

By CIMSEC 2017-03-30 12:48:42

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

Hainan Province’s unique geography makes its buildup of maritime militia units the spear tip of China’s prosecution of gray zone operations in the South China Sea: as a standing, front-line force whose leading units are lauded as models for other localities to emulate. This series has therefore examined Hainan’s leading maritime militia units, located in Sanya, Danzhou, Tanmen (in parts one and two), and Sansha. To understand these grassroots units and their development, it has delved deeply into their respective local environments. Having examined these leading entities in depth, it is time to take a province-wide look at larger policy processes and trends in implementation. This installment will also examine the intentions of China’s leaders to construct new elite militia units tailored to meet heightened requirements in China’s armed forces. This new type of front-line militia will serve as a standing force for more regular employment in support of China’s objectives at sea. Part 1 of this final series will therefore explore maritime militia building in a more systemic organizational context, chiefly at the Provincial Military District level; while Part 2 will address specific challenges and how they are managed. Part 3 will conclude this series by appraising the results of Hainan’s maritime militia construction effort and discussing some additional dynamics at play in the provinces. This first part will thus start by probing how a frontier province like Hainan responds to national level militia building initiatives and the measures taken by provincial leaders to oversee its implementation.

China’s national defense system is divided geographically into Theater Commands, previously termed Military Regions. Each Theater Command contains several Provincial Military Districts (MD), where the militia’s direct chain of command begins. As each province is divided into municipalities, each MD is divided into multiple Military Sub-districts (MSD); within each are numerous county-level and grassroots People’s Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). County-level PAFDs are staffed by active-duty personnel while the grassroots PAFDs are non-active duty organizations staffed by “full-time people’s armed forces cadres” (专职人民武装干部) who represent the direct interface between the militia and the PLA chain of command. Each MD oversees the militia work conducted by the MSDs and PAFDs within its area of responsibility.

Local governments provide funding and support while local military commands assume the bulk of responsibilities in maritime militia organization, training, and command. Government agencies such as the Maritime Safety Administration and the China Coast Guard (CCG) assist with aspects of maritime militia building pertaining to their bureaucratic functions, such as training in search and rescue and instruction on maritime law and regulations relevant to their operations.

The National Environment in Which Hainan Province and Its Militia Operate

Propelled by strategies and policies at the national and provincial levels, China’s Maritime Militia continues to grow and develop robustly. Many PLA and government leaders from all levels have some understanding or experience in building or working with the militia as an official component of China’s armed forces. Leaders from the top echelons of Central Military Commission (CMC), Party, and State leadership; as well as leaders of the PLA services, military regions, and provincial MDs; all attended the last National Militia Work Conference held in Beijing on 15 December 2011, a meeting to establish guidelines for nationwide militia work. President Xi Jinping himself likely became intimately familiar with the militia system during his career, particularly as the former deputy director of the Nanjing Military Region National Defense Mobilization Committee from 2000 to 2003. Overall militia policy is first set in Beijing and implemented through the principal civilian and military leaders of the provinces and counties via a dual leadership system of militia work (民兵工作双重领导制度). The militia itself represents an important personnel-centric line of effort in China’s Military-Civilian Fusion concept, recently elevated to a “national strategy.”

Ongoing PLA reforms mandate a reduction in militia personnel nationwide, continuing a trend of replacing outdated infantry militia units with technically capable militia more suited to supporting each of the PLA services in modern, informatized warfare. Maritime militia, meanwhile, are growing in proportion to their land-based counterparts as China prepares for “maritime military struggle,” as highlighted in its 2015 Defense White Paper. This seaward shift is materializing in national-level militia policy as well as in actual militia unit construction. Coastal cities likeShanghai and Beihai have all reported increased maritime militia growth. However, as China’s southernmost province tasked with administering all of Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Hainan bears commensurately large expense for border and coastal defense militia construction.

PLA reforms have also modified management of the MD system by splitting the former General Staff Department (GSD) into several new departments, one of which is the new Central MilitaryCommission-level National Defense Mobilization Department(CMC-NDMD). Already deemed to be in “post-transfer” (转隶后) status by China’s military press, the MD system is now managed by the CMC-NDMD, relieving Theater Commands of many administrative burdens, including the supervision of militia work in the provinces. Discussion in the PLA over the exact role of Theater Commands in the development of national defense mobilization capabilities appears to be ongoing, indicating that the exact relationship between Theater and MD commands in the building and management of reserves has yet to be clarified. Huang Xiangliang, director of the National Defense Reserve Force Department of the Nanjing Army Command College, explains how the PLA reforms strengthened “centralized strategic-level leadership over the nation’s militia and reserves” by directly connecting MDs to the CMC. As the reserves diversify to meet the demands of each PLA service, Huang elaborates, those “services will put forward their requirements for the reserves, which will then be organized, trained, and supported by each level of the MD system.” For the maritime militia, this will entail greater numbers of specialized units trained to support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations.

Statements and policies guiding maritime militia construction are emerging from the CMC-NDMD. During a March 2016 interview, the newly promoted head of the CMC-NDMD Lieutenant General Sheng Bin confirmed the prominence afforded maritime militia building in the 13th Five Year Plan. China, he declared, will “adjust and optimize the scale, structure and layout of its militia and reserves, emphasizing construction of the maritime militia, coastal defense militia, emergency response militia, and new types of reserves.” Indeed, the Outline of the 13th Five Year Plan emphasizes strengthening the reserves and “maritime mobilization forces” in particular. On 28 July 2016, the head of the CMC-NDMD’s Militia and Reserves Department, Major General Wang Wenqing, also gave public guidance for solving common issues in maritime militia building.

Implementation is progressing apace. As CMC-NDMD Deputy Head Major General Hu Yishu describes in an October 2016 article in China’s Militia, a PLA Daily publication guiding national militia work, that revisions are underway on the nation’s Guidance Law for Maritime Militia and Border Defense Militia Military Training Work. This will regulate the tactics and training methods for “maritime militia participating in rights protection actions and support for PLAN actions.” With significant PLAN South Sea Fleet presence, the Hainan MD will likely see greater demand for maritime militia units configured to support PLAN operations in the South China Sea.

The Provincial Command

The Hainan MD’s military leadership published extensive articles in late 2015 comprehensively outlining missions, organization, training, and other aspects of Hainan’s maritime militia development and operations. The writings, by MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin and MD Commander Major General Zhang Jian respectively, appeared in National Defense, a domestically-oriented journal sponsored by the PLA Academy of Military Science. They reveal much about how the Hainan MD envisions and plans to execute national militia guidelines to help operationalize Beijing’s South China Sea strategy. Essential to directing a province’s construction of its maritime militia, such leaders directly promulgate militia construction requirements to their civilian government counterparts. The works of Liu and Zhang thus warrant close examination.

Invoking Chairman Xi’s and the Central Party’s guidance on maritime militia building and “strategically managing the ocean,” Political Commissar Liu Xin focuses on the role of the maritime militia in “maritime rights protection” (efforts to uphold and enforce China’s maritime claims). Liu explains how drawing in the people, especially fishermen, will help give China freedom of action—and the initiative—in maritime rights protection. According to Liu, the bulk of the maritime militia force will comprise the province’s original units, but will be led by newly created emergency response units with “new types” of maritime militia as the core. Evaluations will be strengthened to ensure there is a core force of “new-type fishing vessels” and “elite standing maritime militia emergency response units.” They must “be able to respond when called upon and win emergency maritime rights protection wars of initiative” (打赢海上应急维权主动仗). Liu’s remarks reflect a combination of higher combat readiness levels for emergency response units—i.e., the elite units—and the more regular rights protection roles of the majority of maritime militia units.

News reports state that Liu lead a new initiative in early 2016 to promulgate policies and plans for maritime militia organization and involvement in rights protection. Under his lead, the province passed the “13th Five Year Plan on Hainan Province’s Maritime Militia Construction,” providing systematic planning for missions; as well as guidelines, requirements, and measures for maritime militia building. Liu reportedly devoted great time and effort to key maritime militia construction issues, visiting numerous islands and reefs in the process. He was also reported to have been personally involved in multiple joint training events with active duty forces, emergency response plan drafting, and the strengthening of over ten maritime militia emergency response detachments. He also spent time working with local governments, ensuring that such pressing issues as expenditures and maritime militia base construction were included in their military affairs meetings.

Hainan MD Political Commissar Major General Liu Xin (center) and Sansha Garrison Political Commissar Senior Colonel Liao Chaoyi (left) inspect one of Sansha City’s new “militia fishing vessels.”

Writing in more operational terms, MD Commander Zhang Jian explains how to increase the professionalization of maritime militia personnel and vessels. According to Commander Zhang, ships must be large-tonnage, high-speed, seaworthy steel-hulled fishing vessels strong enough to withstand collisions. These vessels should be drawn from fishing enterprises and cooperatives whose vessels frequent the sea areas in which their services are required for missions, as well as those vessels whose crews have previous experience engaging in rights protection. Furthermore, material and equipment are allocated according to the requirements of maritime rights protection and naval combat support, including communications and reconnaissance equipment and “defensive combat weaponry.” Personnel from different specialties should be grouped in units according to the following formulation: “Recruit experienced fishermen to serve as vessel operators as well as military personnel and veterans with maritime specialties to be core combatants; and select People’s Armed Forces cadres with maritime rights protection experience and medical staff with at-sea experience to be command and support personnel [respectively].” This implies that a mixture of personnel may crew maritime militia vessels, as embodied in the widespread phrase “determine troops based on the vessel” (以船定兵) for maritime militia organization. This style of organization could also conceivably be tailored to different missions. This is echoed in other provinces as well, such as Liu Xuan, head of the Shuidong Township PAFD in Guangdong Province. He stated in early 2016, “next year we will take in even more experienced and hardened fishermen with good work ethics, bolster them with primary militiamen, and hold targeted training in the subjects of maritime rights protection and war time support.” Liu Xuan’s statement indicates that formerly land-based coastal militia may also be assigned to maritime militia vessels. This demonstrates how local military commands are mobilizing current resources in varying ways to produce stronger maritime militia forces.

Commander Zhang stipulates three types of operations for the maritime militia:

1. Their use as “civilians against civilians for regular demonstration of rights” (以民对民常态示权). The government will take the lead in implementing command and organizing maritime militia to fish in even the more remote waters (within the Near Seas) with greater organization and scale. This ensures that a certain number of China’s fishing vessels are present in “China’s waters” at any given time, achieving regular presence and declaration of sovereignty. Maritime militia are to be summoned immediately when foreign civilian vessels from neighboring countries are found encroaching on fishing rights or disrupting Chinese development of islands and reefs, resource extraction, or scientific surveys. Such civilian countermeasures against other civilians are envisioned to gain the initiative rapidly.

2. Their use in “special cases of rights protection by using civilians in cooperation with law enforcement” (以民协警察专项维权).Maritime militia will “receive orders” from their command to conduct special rights protection missions when neighboring countries violate China’s maritime rights and interests and when China’s maritime law enforcement (MLE) requires their assistance. This often entails the combining of maritime militia and MLE forces to form a joint law enforcement force, whereby the militia participate directly in rights protection law enforcement actions by supplementing MLE forces. In these actions, together with MLE forces, maritime militia primarily conduct perimeter patrol (外围巡逻), sea area control (海区封控), alerting and expulsion (警戒驱离), confrontation (海上对峙), and combining to push back (合力逼退) foreign vessels.

3. “Participation in combat and support-the-front by using civilians to support the...

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