People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia [PAFMM] - Force Structure
Most maritime militia vessels operate on the high seas, usually engaged in commercial fishing activities, but occasionally need to assist the Chinese Navy or the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG). During an armed conflict, people on such ships may be arrested, and during hostilities, such as assisting the Chinese Navy, they may also be attacked. Finally, the third category of fishing boats are actually auxiliary vessels of the Chinese Navy, operating with the Chinese Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard. There is no uniform definition of naval auxiliary ships, but these ships receive the same treatment as warships. During an armed conflict, they may be sunk outside of neutral waters. These ships are officially included in the operations of the Chinese Navy.
Andrew Erickson, a maritime militia expert at the US Naval War College, reported that China's maritime militia in the South China Sea includes more than 300 fishing boats and more than 4,000 personnel, but the actual number may be much larger than this. The article also stated that these maritime militias were composed of civilian fishermen, who received regular military training under the command of the Navy and were paid. Most of their ships are unarmed, but their bows are reinforced so that they can hit other ships, and they are equipped with high-powered water pipes that are sufficient to deal with other small ships. In addition, most ships have sophisticated communication equipment for espionage, so they can be easily grouped and deployed under military command.
Many fishing cooperatives affiliated with PAFMM are ordinary fishing organizations. They belong to the commercial fishing industry and only occasionally work for the Chinese Navy. Other members are more specialized and better equipped to perform tasks directly. They are the maritime vanguard of the Navy’s auxiliary fleet, rather than fishing vessels.
China has the largest fishing fleet in the world. In 2015, China had approximately 370,000 unpowered vessels and another approximately 672,000 motorized fishing vessels. The maritime militia is equipped with a new steel hull ship and Beidou satellite navigation system, which can send text messages to track and report location, and conduct paramilitary training. Their ships conduct military training with the Chinese Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard, and receive compensation, including local subsidies, social benefits and pensions.
The most capable units in PAFMM are ready to launch a guerrilla-style "people's war at sea." They are equipped with mines, anti-aircraft artillery and missiles. These ships have also received intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) training, and may provide data relay to expand the Chinese Navy’s kill chain. This network is estimated to have as many as 20,000 ships and tens of thousands of militia members, forming a "maritime reconnaissance network."
In 1950, very few of the existing 78 000 fishing boats were equipped with diesel engines and marine capture fisheries produced 546 000 mt only. Then, the number of powered fishing vessels increased rapidly. By the end of the 1950s, their number reached 2 443, totalling 187 000 HP; there were still 127 000 non-powered fishing boats with a total tonnage of 642 000 t. As a result, total production of marine capture fisheries increased to 1.754 million mt. It was evident that the greater the number of powerboats, the greater the catch. During the period 1960-1976, China experienced two disasters: the “great leap forward” and the “cultural revolution”. Such political turmoils badly damaged the entire economy, including fisheries. But problems associated with overfishing were not yet present. By 1976, there were 22 000 fishing powerboats, which was 8.9 times as many as in 1959. From 1977, the number of fishing powerboats increased rapidly. By 1998, it reached 473 000, total power exceeding 1.775 million HP. Among them, there were 283 000 marine fishing vessels, ten times more than in 1974. Number of non-powered boats decreased to 27 240, totalling 39 372 tons. In 1999, landings from marine capture fisheries went up to 14.976 million mt, a slightly higher figure than in 1998. In 2000 the first ever national marine fishing boat census was carried out for China’s three fisheries administrative zones (Bohai and Yellow Seas, East China Sea, South China Sea), resulting in an estimated total of 244,300 registered motor fishing boats with a total GRT of 5.41 million and a total power of over 12 million kW.
China now has the largest distant-water fishing [DWF] fleet in the world, but its production capacity and industrial scale is much smaller than that of developed countries due to factors such as inadequate equipment and lack of technology, being constituted by relatively old vessels which lack long-range sea-going capability China reported to the FAO, in 2007, a total of 289,000 motorised fishing vessels active in marine fisheries with a total combined power of 14.7 million kW. However, fleet estimates are uncertain, particularly in relation to smaller scale coastal vessels. Fleet capacity reduction strategies have had only limited success. Excess fishing capacity continues to be a major impediment to the effective management of marine resources in China, generally suffering from over-exploitation. Registration of fishing vessels is handled by regional offices responsible for fisheries management such as the Port Supervisory Authority under the Bureau of Fisheries. The system is highly de-centralised as the harbor master of the vessel’s home port is responsible for the registration of the fishing vessel.
In 2004, the most common fishing gear used was the trawl net. In terms of production, trawlers accounted for 47.6% of catches, gill net accounted for near 17%, setnets represented near 15%, lines and hooks took 6%, purse seines took 5.3%, and other fishing gear took 9%.
In the past, the PAFMM rented fishing boats from companies or individual fisherman, but it appears that China is building a state-owned fishing fleet for its maritime militia force in the South China Sea. Hainan Province, adjacent to the South China Sea, ordered the construction of 84 large militia fishing boats with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage for Sansha City, and the militia took delivery by the end of 2016.
A large number of PAFMM vessels train with and support the PLA and CCG in tasks such as safeguarding maritime claims, protecting fisheries, and providing logistic support, search and rescue (SAR), and surveillance and reconnaissance. The Chinese government subsidizes local and provincial commercial organizations to operate militia ships to perform “official” missions on an ad hoc basis outside their regular commercial roles.
The CCP’s closest port to the South China Sea is Tanmen Town, Qionghai City, Hainan Province. In 2013, the maritime militia in Tanmen Town received nearly two months of military training, as well as learning the law of the sea, marine science electronic equipment and other professional knowledge. When foreign reporters visited the Hainan area, all residents and fishermen were given bans and never mentioned anything about the maritime militia. A reporter happened to run into the maritime militia who was training in camouflage uniforms, but the locals only said that they were in "Filming", wearing camouflage uniforms is just "for sun protection." However, according to CCP official media reports, in April 2013, CCP leader Xi Jinping personally went to Tanmen Town, Qionghai City, Hainan Province to inspect the local "maritime militia company" and asked them to "actively collect ocean-going information for the CCP." Support the construction of islands and reefs."
At present, the Communist Army adopts the method of "raising weapons by boats and raising soldiers by fishing", and establishes a special support fund system for maritime militias, and includes subsidies and incentives such as equipment purchase, participation in maritime military exercises, and fishing vessel modification into the scope of local defense mobilization funds. And formulate preferential incentive policies. At present, the CCP’s coastal provinces, including Shandong, Guangxi, Hainan and other provinces’ military districts and fisheries authorities, have recruited retired CCP officers and soldiers as maritime militias. In order to enhance the ability to carry out missions at sea, they have purchased new high-tech equipment and are pre-programmed. The fleet has purchased equipment such as satellite locators, navigation radars, and ultrashort wave radio stations to enable the naval militia vessels to be equipped with long-distance information reception and transmission capabilities.
Sansha City established its new maritime militia in 2013 on the basis of the original Paracel Islands militia. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hainan Province Sansha Garrison on Woody Island took charge of training and commanding this new force, according to numerous reports in Chinese state media. By July 2016, the city’s maritime militia had grown to include over 1,800 militiamen and more than 100 vessels, the Sansha City government reported. At the time, the municipal authorities described this force as playing an “irreplaceable role” in defending China’s maritime claims.
According to a 2015 article authored by Sansha Garrison Commander Cai Xihong in the PLA-run magazine National Defense, the city created Sansha City Fisheries Development Co, Ltd. to manage the militia’s new fleet of steel-hulled ships. Corporate records confirm that Sansha established this new municipal state-owned enterprise in February 2015. Sansha City Fisheries Development regularly invites other companies to bid on contracts to supply goods and services to the company. Two such projects from 2017 had either “classified information systems integration” or “state secrets protection” credentials requirements for the third-party supplier. These security qualifications are typically reserved for companies and other entities working on classified projects for the PLA or the Chinese government, which suggests that Sansha City Fisheries Development is indeed the civilian front for a paramilitary force.
In late 2017, Sansha City Fisheries Development hired Xi’an Jiangong Construction Tendering Co., Ltd. to manage the bids for a “fishing boat hull underwater cleaning project” worth 5,628,640 yuan ($804,000). One announcement published by Xi’an Jiangong Construction Tendering during the bidding process states that the project “involves national security and secrets” and another specifies that the third-party supplier must have a “state secrets protection” qualification.
And earlier in 2017, Sansha City Fisheries Development tendered bids for a “special equipment” contract worth 63,710,000 yuan ($9,101,400) for an “SX command system.” According to the tendering announcement, the third-party supplier needed to have a “classified information systems integration first-class credential” or a “national third-level or higher secrets protection qualification.” The former covers the development, construction, and operation of classified information systems at the top-secret level; the latter covers weapons and equipment research and development projects at the lowest classification level, Chinese regulations say.
The company that won the “SX command system” contract is Space Star Technology Co., Ltd., also known as the CASC 5th Academy 503rd Research Institute, a subsidiary of the state-owned defense contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Though the technical details of the “SX command system” remain unclear, Space Star Technology’s website and contracts reveal a range of comparable capabilities, including military intelligence equipment as well as maritime communications and command systems. One specific example is a South China Sea monitoring system through which law enforcement ships and fishing boats from Guangdong province can collect information and transmit it back to a command center on land in support of the defense of China’s maritime claims.
Sansha City Fisheries Development manages a fleet of steel-hulled ships belonging to Sansha City’s maritime militia. Each of the vessels in this fleet operates under the name of “Qiongsanshayu” followed by a string of numbers. As per Chinese naming conventions, “Qiong” indicates that the ships fall under the jurisdiction of Hainan province, “sansha” conveys that they belong to Sansha City, and “yu” marks them as ostensible fishing vessels.
Procurement records from the Sansha Garrison — which is responsible for training and commanding Sansha’s maritime militia — reveals the presence of dedicated “militia bases” with training facilities near both the Sanya Yazhou and Danzhou Baimajiang ports. A 2016 report in the PLA-run paper China Defense News indicates that the Sansha Garrison uses militia bases on the Hainan mainland to train militiamen in navigation, communications, and other skills.
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