By: Cheng Lai Ki
Maritime tensions in the East Asia region are undoubtedly a hallmark event of the early twenty-first century, as well as of the emergence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a regional superpower in the East. Concurrent to existing tensions between Japan, Korea and the PRC over islands in the East China Sea (i.e. Senkaku), the emerging Eastern power has also begun to expand into the South China Sea – claiming its historical sovereignty. Coined as the ‘Little Blue Men’, China has increased the deployment of its Maritime Militia into the disputed waters within South-East Asia (SEAsia) over the past six months. This proxy-warfare strategy is similar to President Valdimir Putin’s ‘Little-Green-Men’ strategy of deploying civilian militia forces to support Russian operations during the Ukrainian Crisis. China’s military and naval expansion in the region has not slowed, especially with the integration of the Type 053 Frigate into its Coast Guard Force in around June 2016. While it remains relatively easy to track the progression of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its new assets/platforms, tracking its Maritime Militia has proven somewhat more elusive.
The ‘Little Blue Men’ are China’s Maritime Militia formed of civilian fishermen and seafaring merchants. According to an article from Defense One, the PRC’s ‘Little Blue Men’ were ‘Chinese merchant and fishing vessels [behaving] in sharp contrast to China’s navy ships, “crossing the [USS Lassen’s] bow and manoeuvring around the [navy] destroyer even as they kept their distance”’. Articles 27 and 28 in Section 3 of the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) have established the immunity and relevant protective laws of civilian/commercial vessels conducting passage through ‘sovereign waters’. This issue has been under consistent debate after China’s disregard for the Court of Arbitration’s ruling on 12 July 2016 about China’s sovereignty of the South China Sea. The ruling effectively denounced most of China’s maritime activity in the region as non-innocent passage in an Economic Free Zone belonging to the surrounding SEAsian countries. The PRC has since vowed to disregard the ruling and continued to conduct operations and increased presence within the contested waters.
China’s use of the Maritime Militia is not a new strategy. It existed after the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s and its solidification as China’s main political power in the 1960s. According to Erikson and Kennedy, the first recorded implementation of maritime militia can be linked to its island seizure campaigns during the 1950s – namely, the First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1955-96). That PLAN has continued with this proxy-warfare strategy is evident from the 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoals from the Philippines and the 2014 repelling of Vietnamese vessels from a Chinese oil-platform located near the contested Paracel Islands. The PLAN Maritime Militia has been defined by the commanders from the Zhongshan garrison as ‘an irreplaceable mass armed organization not released from production and a component of China’s ocean defence armed forces [that enjoys] low sensitivity and great leeway in maritime rights protection actions.’ In a 2014 Official PLA Publication, it described its Maritime Militia as ‘穿上迷彩是合格战士，脱下迷彩是守法渔民’; which can be translated into ‘a soldier when wearing camouflage, complying fishermen when not’. Such hybrid strategies can also be identified in Western civilizations, as with the historical use of privateers by the East India Trading Company to protect merchant vessels traveling the high-seas. Despite this maritime proxy-warfare being a historically entrenched strategy, it has to be modernized to adapt to contemporary laws and operational platforms. What are the modern military strategic roots of China’s ‘Little Blue Men’? Outside of regional presence, what other objectives can an efficient militia support?
2013 Science of Military Strategy & Thousand Grains of Sand
The roots of China’s modern Maritime Militia strategy can be most recently traced back to the 2013 Science and Military Strategy publication and the concept of Forward Defence of its strategic space. The concept essentially emphasises the need to shift possible contention locations away from China’s geographical (inclusive of coastal) territory and into its peripheral regions. By expanding its defendable dominion, China effectively increases the distances between itself and potential adversaries. This enforcement of forward defence can be further confirmed through the fortifications (i.e. runways and radar towers) made on the artificial islands in the disputed maritime regions in SEAsia. Yet, how does this apply to their Little Blue Men?
To realize their Forward Defence strategy within its maritime domain, China utilises its largest asset: its people. Chairman Mao once characterised the contentions China faces (and will face) as a ‘People’s War’; where everyone is equally confronted by the same threat, and hence arises the need for collective resistance. As such, the notion of unity is an essential concept identifiable in leadership discussion across multiple topics as argued by Martin Jacques in a 2010 TEDTalk. This unity is essentially the concept of nationalism (or national pride), as stated in the 2014 official publication of China’s Maritime Militia, mentioned above. Adapting this to the PLAN’s Maritime Militia strategy, the 2013 Science of Military Strategy publication essentially suggests utilizing China’s grandiose civilian population to its advantage. This reflects another strategy known as Thousand Grains of Sand, where power can be obtained through exploiting the volume of the citizen population for intelligence and warfare purposes. To skeptical security scholars, this deployment of civilians onto the frontline and exploitation of their attack immunity resembles a ‘human shield’. Evidence of this strategy is evident from incidents where detained fishing vessels were ‘rammed’ clear (and allowed to escape) by the larger Type-053 Frigates of the Chinese Coast Guard (essentially warships) escorts. This allows the PRC to project military presence in the maritime domain under the guise of protective escorts.
Outside of Power & Control
Outside of establishing presence and control in the contested maritime region, an efficient militia can also provide significant human intelligence (HUMINT) support – as defined by Michael Herman’s HUMINT Pyramid. The PLAN’s Little Blue Men are civilians nonetheless and are able to travel inconspicuously throughout several maritime regions. Although illegal, the identity of seafaring vessels is dependent on what flag they fly during their passage. In addition, when coupled with China’s extensive HUMINT infrastructure of embedded civilian spies, the Little Blue Men can easily become a means of payload delivery and asset deployment for the PLAN and other Chinese agencies. Of course, while these concepts remain , we should not deny the possibilities of such strategies – especially with China’s increasing recognition of Cross-Domain Warfare. China recognises the need to defend its maritime peripherals to ensure a more inclusive security environment, especially after its geographical command reform in 2015 (See Fig 1).
In summary, China’s Little Blue Men strategy supports a greater concept of strategic space expansion through forward defence. Guided by Mao’s concept of all Chinese conflicts requiring national resistance, it is of no surprise that the CCP would be expanding its militia programs – something reflected in its HUMINT programs and even cyberspace according to Sheldon and MacReynolds. Understanding that militaristic behaviour would significantly undermine the image projected by Xi Jinping’s administration, the party has turned to its massive civilian population. It is without a doubt that the objective of China’s ‘Little Blue Men’ is to support its strategic space expansion without projecting a direct military presence in the region. The employment of militia forces is a revitalization of its older strategies of creating a sort of maritime wall capable of intelligence gathering, early-warning and forward defense.
Cheng served as an Amour Officer and Training Instructor at the Armour Training Institute (ATI) in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and now possesses reservist status. Currently undertaking his MA in International Intelligence and Security at King’s College London, his research revolves around security considerations within the Asia-Pacific Region and more specifically around areas of Cybersecurity, Maritime Security and Intelligence Studies. His Graduate thesis explores the characteristics and trends defining China’s emerging Cybersecurity and Cyberwarfare capabilities. He participated in the April 2016 9/12 Cyber Student Challenge in Geneva and has been published in IHS Janes’s Intelligence Review in May 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @LK_Cheng
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Cheng Lai Ki
Cheng Lai Ki is a Freelance Intelligence Analyst in Singapore and works in the field of cybersecurity, geopolitical risk and international security. He has an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King's College London and was a former Managing Editor at StrifeBlog.