China’s Maritime Militia Surges in South China Sea

Maritime militia
Courtesy Philippine Coast Guard

Published Feb 29, 2024 3:43 PM by The Maritime Executive


China is increasingly using its militia fleet to advance its sovereignty claims over the vast majority of the South China Sea, according to a new study from the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

AMTI finds that China’s once-covert maritime militia has become increasingly visible over the last year. The researchers found a 35 percent increase in the vessels' presence around key features of the South China Sea in 2023.

AMTI’s analysis of satellite imagery of nine key reefs and shoals show that China’s militia is more active than ever, with an average of 195 militia ships seen across the features on any given day in 2023. The study counted ships from both the Chinese professional maritime militia - units based in Hainan with purpose-built vessels - and the “Spratly backbone fleet” of subsidized commercial fishing vessels that have a secondary defense mission. 

The overall increase was accompanied by a dramatic shift in vessels to Mischief Reef in the summer of last year. Over 180 militia ships were observed at this strategic Chinese base in imagery from July. Other reefs that showed a significant presence of the maritime militia ships include Hughes and Whitsun, with the large numbers also noticeable near China’s outpost at Gaven Reef and smaller groups seen near Philippine-occupied Thitu and at Iroquois Reef.

The ships have become an integral part of Beijing’s operations in disputed South China Sea waters, according to ASPI. As documented many times by the Philippine Coast Guard and international media, they deploy in close coordination with the China Coast Guard, shadowing and harassing Philippine vessels at contested land features.

Last year, an increasing number of militia vessels were involved in tensions with the Philippines at Second Thomas Shoal. The shoal, a longtime flashpoint, has emerged as the focal point of frictions in the South China Sea in recent times. The number of Chinese vessels observed during Philippine resupply missions at the shoal has gone up from an average of one ship in 2021 to 14 ships last year. During the most dramatic standoff, on December 10, AMTI counted 46 Chinese vessels present.

“The contrast between the relatively low persistent militia presence at Second Thomas and the intensity of operations during resupply missions indicates that, while the militia may frequent certain locations, professional militia ships stand ready to support China Coast Guard operations at short notice at any point of friction,” observers AMTI.

AMTI said that the numbers may even be higher than captured in its study. It used remote sensing data to detect vessels of 45 meters in length or larger, but Chinese maritime militia boats can be as small as 35 meters - and these smaller vessels were not tallied.