China’s Secretive Maritime Militia May Be Gathering at Whitsun Reef

Boats designed to overwhelm civilian foes can be turned into shields in real conflict.

A Chinese ship at sea, visible through mist.
A Chinese ship participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's navy, in the sea near Qingdao, China, on April 23, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/AFP via Getty Images

An obscure boomerang-shaped feature in the South China Sea may host the next phase of PRC maritime coercion. Since at least March 7, 2021, many dozens of large, blue-hulled PRC ships have been lashed together in Whitsun Reef’s lagoon. They have not been seen to do any fishing, but run powerful lights at night. Citing the presence of 220 China Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels, on March 21 Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana publicly demanded their departure from his nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Manila supplemented his statement with a diplomatic protest from Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

But Beijing remains defiant. Spokespeople from the PRC’s foreign ministry (Hua Chunying) and embassy in Manila have denied that the vessels belong to China’s militia, defended their presence as sheltering from (unobservable) inclement weather, and deflected by making the usual PRC claim that others should not inflame the situation with irresponsible accusations. But on the morning of March 22, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief Lt. Gen. Sobejana reports, the Philippine Air Force observed “183 CMM vessels” still present.

When it comes to South China Sea features, few things are simple. While Whitsun Reef remains undeveloped and uninhabited for now, it is claimed by the Philippines as Julian Felipe Reef, by Vietnam as Da Ba Dau, and by China as 牛轭礁 Niu’e Jiao (“Oxbow Reef”). As the easternmost feature in the Spratlys’ multi-nationally occupied Union Banks, it is strategically situated astride busy sea lanes—an ideal base for monitoring and operational dispatch. Previously a low-tide elevation, Whitsun apparently now has “a 100-meter long sand dune that has reportedly grown in area and height.” Since at least the 1990s, China and Vietnam have been playing a cat-and-mouse game of sovereignty maneuvers around Whitsun, with China attempting to stake a claim with markers such as buoys, and Vietnamese forces operating from nearby features such as nearby Sin Cowe Island and removing them.

In recent years, whenever Beijing has chosen to focus on a feature or factor, it has increased efforts to a scale and intensity that its rivals cannot directly match. Case in point: All South China Sea states occupying features enhanced them to some extent, but starting around 2014 Beijing began industrial-scale “island building” and fortification that left its rivals in the coral dust. Thus whatever exactly is happening at Whitsun Reef at the moment, it’s a good time to look at China’s well-tested approach to eroding neighbors’ sovereignty and international rules and norms in the South China Sea—and what can be done to counter it.

Photos from the Philippine Coast Guard and Armed Forces, as well as Lorenzana’s statement, match verified information on the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), which is formally part of China’s Armed Forces. Although apparently slightly different in hull form, the ships photographed look and operate very much like the 84 large steel-hulled vessels purpose-built at multiple shipyards by 2016 for the leading Sansha City Maritime Militia, as documented by both the U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Naval Intelligence. (Sansha itself is not a real city, but a PRC jurisdiction established to push forward South China Sea claims over an area of ocean and islands 1,700 times the size of New York City.)

For the past few years, AIS data have shown Sansha ships engaged in rotational forward deployments to PRC-claimed features and outposts throughout the South China Sea.

Crewed by well-salaried fulltime personnel recruited in part from former PLA ranks, they appear not to bother fishing—the better to focus on trolling for territory.

Such vessels reportedly have weapons lockers, and official PRC photos depict exercises in which they are loaded with “light arms.” But it doesn’t really matter whether they’re carrying small arms or not: For the gray-zone operations in which leading PAFMM vessels and crews are charged with engaging, the ships themselves are the main weapon.

Far larger and stronger than typical fishing vessels from the Philippines or other South China Sea neighbors, their comparatively robust hull designs—with additional rub strakes welded onto the hull’s steel plating aft of the bow, and—typically—powerful mast-mounted water cannons, make them powerful weapons in most contingencies, capable of aggressively shouldering, ramming, and spraying overmatched civilian or police opponents.

Conversely, against the U.S. Navy or other capable foreign forces, they would become weapons of the weak—human shields forcing consequential choices for rules of engagement. Their supposed civilian status would come to the fore, especially for propaganda purposes.

Either way, in international sea incidents they would be controlled by a PLA chain of command, likely through the Southern Theater Command, under the ultimate authority of Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping and the Central Military Commission.

In sum, these reported vessels fit clearly with Beijing’s established South China Sea modus operandi. Several immediate implications suggest themselves.

China appears to be building on recent operational patterns near Whitsun with much larger ship numbers, highly visible lights, and longer loitering. Far beyond what would be optimal for monitoring operations, this suggests presence assertion and signaling resolve and attempt to compel compliance with its assertive policy approaches.

Former Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute Director Peter Dutton offers a big-picture explanation for Beijing’s behavior: “During the Alaska meetings, China appears determined to play power politics to back up its confrontational attitude. First, there were the trials of Michael Spavor on Friday and Michael Kovrig [the Canadians held hostage by Beijing for over two years] today. Now, it is clear they are pressuring a U.S. ally in the SCS.”

Dutton specifies: “These acts represent direct pressures on Canada and the Philippines, two US allies. Other SE Asian claimants will also take note in the wake of stalled, perhaps failed, COC [Code of Conduct] negotiations. These negotiations failed because China wants what law rightfully gives its neighbors.” The implication: “China’s implicit message to them? ‘We are strong and will take what we want if we must, without regard to law or prior commitments. Might as well make your best deal now.’” Dutton concludes: “The two Michaels’ trials and the gray zone pressure in the SCS play to audiences in SE Asia, Australia and elsewhere to show PRC willingness to use power to get what it wants. Our best response is collective resistance and mutual support.” He suggests: “As the DOD and the USG develop new China strategies, let’s let this moment of clarity serve as a guide.”

If not properly countered at Whitsun Reef, or elsewhere, PAFMM vessels could support further territorial seizure akin to China’s gains at Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And if these approximately 220 vessels indeed belong to leading professionalized, militarized PAFMM units, they alone should significantly increase the U.S. government’s sole public estimate of total PAFMM ship numbers—which may be excessively conservative at around 84 vessels total, a number presently projected to remain fixed until 2030.

The U.S. government must finally complete the vital task of revealing and calling out China’s Maritime Militia and reliably reporting its activities in real time. “We should continuously watch what they are doing there, and report every move,” Jay Batongbacal states cogently. “We should ask allies and friends to do the same, and place China’s activities there under close scrutiny, and ask them to similarly report what they see especially if it could harm mutual interests.”

Any U.S.-China maritime security exchanges and agreements must fully acknowledge the existence of, and include and apply to, the PAFMM and its operations. If China wants to be treated as a responsible power, it has to be honest and open about all three of its Armed Forces at sea—the Navy, Coast Guard, and Maritime Militia—not conceal key vessels as “civilian” fishing boats.

Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a visiting scholar in full-time residence at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

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