U.S. Options for the People’s Republic of China’s Maritime Militias

Blake Herzinger served in the United States Navy in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida.  He is presently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and assists the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative.  His writing has appeared in Proceedings and The Diplomat.  He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  People’s Republic of China (PRC) Maritime Militias operating in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  February 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 6, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author believes in freedom of navigation and maintenance of good order at sea in accordance with customary and written law of the sea.  The article is written from the point of view of U.S. sea services leadership toward countering PRC maritime irregulars at sea.

Background:  The PRC employs irregular militia forces at sea alongside naval and maritime law enforcement units.  By deploying these so-called “blue hulls” manned by un-uniformed (or selectively-uniformed) militiamen, the PRC presses its maritime claims and confronts foreign sea services within a “gray zone[1].”  In keeping with national traditions of People’s War, PRC Maritime Militias seek advantage through asymmetry, while opposing competitors whose rules of engagement are based on international law.  The PRC Maritime Militia participated in several of the most provocative PRC acts in the SCS, including the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and the 2014 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) 981 confrontation with Vietnam that also involved the smaller Vietnam Maritime Militia[2].

Significance:  On its surface, employing irregular forces may be an attractive option for a state facing a more powerful opponent, or for a state interested in “a less provocative means of promoting its strategic goal of regional hegemony” such as the PRC[3].  However, incorporating these irregular forces into a hybrid national strategy has deleterious impacts on the structure of the international legal system, particularly in maritime law and the laws of naval warfare[4].  PRC Maritime Militias’ use of “civilian” fishing vessels to support, and conduct, military operations distorts this legal structure by obfuscating the force’s identity and flaunting established international legal boundaries.

Option #1:  U.S. political and military leaders engage the PRC/People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) directly and publicly on the existence and operations of the Maritime Militia, insist upon adherence to internationally-accepted legal identification of vessels and personnel[6], and convey what costs will be imposed on the PRC/PLAN if they do not change their behavior.

As an example, the Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, has voiced his frustration with PLAN unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the PRC Maritime Militia and its relationships with state law enforcement and military forces[5].  In the event that the PRC declines to engage in dialogue regarding the Maritime Militia, discontinuing PLAN participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercise is the suggested response.

Risk:  Without clearly attaching costs to continued use of militia forces in operations against the USN, Option #1 is unlikely to affect PRC behavior.  Conveying possible imposed costs carries risk of further-degrading relations between the U.S. and PRC, but it is precisely PRC perceptions of their behavior as costless that encourages the behaviors exhibited by the PRC’s Maritime Militia[7].

Gain:  Option #1 is an excellent opportunity for the U.S. to underline its commitment to good order at sea and a rules-based maritime order.  By encouraging the PRC to acknowledge the Maritime Militia and its associated command structure, the U.S. can cut through the ambiguity and civilian camouflage under which the Maritime Militia has operated unchallenged.  In the event that the PRC declines to engage, conveying the possible imposition of costs may serve as a warning that behavior negatively affecting good order at sea will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Option #2:  U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF-W) assists the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in developing and implementing an organic maritime domain awareness (MDA) capability with domestic, and international, interagency sharing and response capability.  For the purposes of this article, MDA will be understood to be a host-nation’s ability to “collect, fuse, analyze and disseminate maritime data, information and intelligence relating to potential threats to [its] security, safety, economy or environment[8].”

Risk:  Close to a score of abandoned information portals and sharing infrastructures have been tried and failed in Southeast Asia, a cautionary tale regarding the risk of wasted resources.  Building upon over 20 years of JIATF-W’s experience should help to mitigate this risk, so long as an MDA solution is developed cooperatively and not simply imposed upon ASEAN.

Gain:  By providing focused and long-term support to an ASEAN-led solution, the U.S. can make progress in an area where MDA has been plagued by reticence, and occasionally inability to share vital information across interagency and national borders.  Shared awareness and cooperation at sea will combat the ability of the PRC Maritime Militia to operate uncontested in the SCS by enabling more effective law enforcement and naval response by affected countries.  Working through existing regional institutions such as Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre would add increased value to Option #2.

Option #3:  Utilize U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to provide law enforcement and maritime safety training support to states bordering the ECS/SCS interested in creating their own maritime militias.

Risk:  Expanding a concept that is damaging the rules-based order may increase the rate of disintegration of good order at sea.  Any observable indication that the U.S. is encouraging the creation of irregular maritime forces would likely be viewed negatively by the PRC.  Option #3 carries risk of engendering diplomatic or military conflict between the U.S. and PRC, or between the PRC and U.S. partners.

Gain:  Option #3 might provide some level of parity for states facing PRC militia vessels.  Vietnam has already made the decision to pursue development of a maritime militia and others may follow in hopes of countering the PRC’s irregular capability.  USCG involvement in the organizational development and training of militias might provide some limited opportunities to shape their behavior and encourage responsible employment of militia forces.

Other Comments:  Encouragement for the expansion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is not addressed.  The CUES  was adopted during the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and provides a basis for communications, maritime safety, and maneuvering guidelines for use by ships and aircraft in unplanned encounters at sea.  CUES is not a legally binding document, but an agreed-upon protocol for managing potentially escalatory encounters in the Pacific[9].  This author believes coast guards adjoining the contested areas of the ECS and SCS will continue to resist CUES adoption in order to maintain operational latitude.  Given the reticence of coast guards to accede to the agreement, drawing PRC Maritime Militia into CUES seems an unrealistic possibility.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[2]  Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident,” CIMSEC, 21 April 2016, http://cimsec.org/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/24573

[3]  James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies 91.450 (2015): 465, http://stockton.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Christopher Cavas, “China’s Maritime Militia a Growing Concern,” DefenseNews, November 21, 2016,  http://www.defensenews.com/articles/new-website-will-allow-marines-to-share-training-videos

[6]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[7]  The Struggle for Law in the South China Sea, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016) (Statement of James Kraska, U.S. Naval War College).

[8]  Secretary of the Navy Approves Strategic Plan for Maritime Domain Awareness, U.S. Navy, Last updated 8 October 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp? story_id=91417

[9]  Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, USNI News, Last updated 22 August 2016, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea

Association of Southeast Asian Nations Blake Herzinger China (People's Republic of China) Irregular Forces Maritime Option Papers South China Sea United States

U.S. Options Towards a Rising People’s Republic of China

Captain Brian T. Molloy has served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and various posts around the U.S.  He presently works as a Project Manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, PA.  The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  U.S. options towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as it continues to rise and increase its influence in the region surrounding the South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  January, 26, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 20, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is an active duty U.S. Army Officer.  Author believes in the use of force as a last resort and where possible, diplomacy should be the primary lever in influencing foreign powers.

Background:  The U.S. and the PRC are currently playing out a classic dyadic relationship according to power transition theory[1].  This power transition theory is playing out in the SCS with the rising PRC asserting itself militarily and the declining U.S. attempting to reassert control of the region by addressing such military action with “balancing” actions.  Recently U.S. balancing actions have utilized the military instrument of power with the Pacific Pivot[2] and freedom of navigation missions as the most visible.  This U.S. response is playing directly into the beginning stages of a conflict spiral that so often follows with a power transition[3].  The idea of a military deterrent is often floated as the logical alternative to war.  In this case, however, both of the major powers are already a nuclear power with a nuclear deterrent in place.  This nuclear deterrent works to ensure that a direct conflict between the two would be unlikely, however, as we saw in the Cold War, this deterrent does not keep the powers from fighting through proxy wars.  The options presented in this article assume rising influence of the PRC and a declining influence of the U.S., both militarily and economically, in the region.  The SCS has become a potential flash point between the two powers as the PRC uses it’s military to claim land that is also claimed by longtime U.S. Allies in the region.

Significance:  In an increasingly multi-polar global environment, regional powers such as the PRC are becoming a larger threat to U.S. interests throughout the world.  The potential for conflict in the SCS represents the opportunity for the U.S. to either assert influence in the region or cede that influence to a rising PRC.  Control of the SCS is essentially a trade-driven power move by the PRC towards its neighbors.  As such, trade could be the primary focus of the response from the U.S.towards the PRC vice a more dangerous military confrontation.

Option #1:  The U.S. and the PRC seek a strong bi-lateral trade agreement to replace the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the U.S. leverages negotiations on this trade agreement to provide security guarantees to allies in the SCS region.

With the downfall of the TPP the option to enter into a strong bi-lateral trade deal with the PRC is now open.  Negotiating this deal requires nuance and the ability to intertwine defense and trade into an agreement that is both beneficial to all economically, but also sets limits on military actions seen to be provocative to the U.S. and its Allies in the region.  Precedent for this sort of diplomatic economic deterrent action can be seen in post WWII Western Europe with the European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC)[4].  When complete, Option #1 would be an economic deterrent to conflict in the region.  This economic deterrent will utilize trade agreements to ensure the U.S. and the PRC are entwined economically to the point that a military conflict, even a proxy conflict, would be too costly to both sides.  This economic deterrent could be the action that needs to be taken in order rebalance power in the region.

Risk:  The largest risk in entertaining this approach is that it opens the U.S. to the risk of an economic catastrophe if the approach fails.  This risk would likely be unpalatable to the U.S. public and would have to be crafted carefully.  Additionally, under the current administration, a trade deal similar to this could be difficult due to the ongoing rhetoric coming from the White House.  Finally, this approach risks leaving long-time U.S. Allies no way to dispute their claims in the SCS.

Gain:  This agreement gains the lessened risk of a conflict between the U.S. and the PRC and also has the potential for large economic growth for both sides.  A mutually beneficial trade agreement between two of the largest economies in the world has the potential to remove the risk of conflict and simultaneously improve quality of life domestically.

Option #2:  The U.S. can use its trade power to balance PRC influence in the region through encouraging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to trade as a bloc.  This is essentially an Asian version of the European Union which can build multilateral trade agreements and also leverage economic sanctions to assert power in the region.  Building ASEAN to be able to handle this would require a more inclusive membership of some of the more powerful Asian countries, Japan, and the Republic of Korea among them.  This effort would require a radical overhaul of the ASEAN bloc but would benefit much smaller countries as they try to address the influence of the PRC.

Risk:  The U.S., particularly under the current administration, is not a proponent of supranational organizations.  In order for Option #2 to work the U.S. must have a stake in the game.  Additionally, the U.S. risks losing influence in the region to the newly formed ASEAN economic power.  There is the possibility that the newly formed ASEAN could forge close ties with the PRC and other trading partners and leave the U.S. out.  Finally, the SCS is fraught with competing claims not only between the PRC and ASEAN members, but among ASEAN members themselves.  Those conflicts must be worked out before the ASEAN bloc could effectively manage the PRC.

Gain:  This option allows the U.S. to leverage the comparative power of an ASEAN bloc of mostly friendly countries to impose sanctions on the PRC on its behalf.  In this way the U.S. is pushing regional allies take care of their own backyard while still maintaining influence in the region.  The U.S. also benefits as it is able to trade effectively with a large number of Asian countries without entering into a free trade agreement like the TPP.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Garnett, J. (2010). The Causes of War and the Conditions of Peace, in John Baylis et al, Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies’ (3rd Edition OUP 2010), (pp. 19–42). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 3rd Edition

[2]  Panetta, L. E., & Obama, B. (2012). Sustaining U.S. global leadership: priorities for 21st century defense. (pp. 2). Washington, D.C.: Dept. of Defense.

[3]  Cashman, G. & Robinson L. (2007). An Introduction to the Causes of War. Patterns of Interstate Conflict from World War I to Iraq. (pp. 1–25). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc

[4]  Alter, K, & Steinberg, D. (2007). The Theory and Reality of the European Coal and Steel Community.  Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies, working paper No. 07-001

Association of Southeast Asian Nations Brian T. Molloy China (People's Republic of China) Economic Factors Option Papers South China Sea United States