China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: A Strategic Force in the South China Sea

China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is a civilian-military coast guard that operates in disputed waters near China. Its mission is to establish de facto control over these waters without triggering a “hot” war with rival claimants. The PAFMM provides armed escorts for Chinese fishing vessels, intimidates commercial ships from other nations in disputed waters, and dissuades coast guards and navies from policing their own waters.

These low-intensity operations aim to generate acquiescence from rival claimants, aiming to win the war without a shot being fired. PAFMM’s tactics may involve aggressive forays into waters policed by rival claimants or passive “rights protection” missions in waters already within China’s control. Evidence of the success of PAFMM operations can be seen in the evolving map of the South China Sea.

The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is a unique force in China, consisting of maritime workers trained similarly to reserves or national guards and full-time military recruits. The US military now views the PAFMM as a branch of the PRC armed forces, similar to the PLA Navy and China Coast Guard. The exact size of the PAFMM is challenging to determine due to its vague and shifting membership, with fishermen being drafted in and out as needed.

The militia’s history stretches back nearly as long as the PRC itself, with its creation soon after the Civil War. The PAFMM followed the Maoist logic of ‘people’s war’ and aimed to solve the practical problem of shortfalls in naval assets and expertise among early CCP leadership. The initial task of the early PAFMM was to defend the mainland from Nationalist incursions and retake coastal islands from the KMT during the 1950s.

The PAFMM has been a central player in numerous geopolitical stand-offs since its inception, with its presence being arguably more decisive than that of the conventional People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The militia’s size remains a challenge due to its vague membership and the fact that specific details about the militia rarely make it into official government documents.

The Philippine Armed Forces (PAFMM) played a significant role in the South China Sea conflict, including the capture of the Paracel Islands in 1974, the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009, and the harassment of a Vietnamese survey vessel in 2011. In 2012, the Philippine Navy attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen suspected of illegal fishing around Scarborough Shoal, resulting in a standoff between Philippine and PLA Navy vessels. PAFMM members reportedly helped coordinate the Coast Guard and naval response.

In 2014, PAFMM helped cordon off a Chinese oil platform near the disputed Paracel Islands, preventing harassment from Vietnamese vessels. In 2016, up to 400 fishing boats entered Japan’s territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands, with an escort from China Coast Guard vessels. This incident mirrors a similar surge in 1978 when hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels swarmed the islands ahead of negotiations for a bilateral peace treaty. In 2021, over 200 fishing vessels were found moored off a boomerang-shaped reef claimed by the Philippines and China, leading to Manila’s complaints and the decline of PAFMM vessels.

The PAFMM, or Patrol Aircraft Mission, has been instrumental in China’s government’s efforts to alter the geopolitical map of the South China Sea. Its deniability allows it to operate in gray zones, allowing China to advance its territorial interests without direct military confrontations. For example, China has occupied various features within the de jure EEZ of a US treaty ally in the Philippines without a response from Washington.

The PAFMM also helps realize maritime sovereignty through ground-level presence. Despite facing legal and academic challenges, China has established a permanent and highly militarized footprint throughout the South China Sea, which is often the foundation of a credible sovereignty claim. Fishers in other littoral states are also patriotic, but their governments lack the ability to organize, train, supply, pay, and leverage them as a geopolitical tool to stake a claim at a given reef. Additionally, they lack the backing of China’s increasingly powerful Coast Guard and PLAN vessels, which often serve as a suggestive back-up to the PAFMM’s more aggressive maneuvers.

ChinaChina's People's Armed Forces Maritime MilitiaChina's People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia: A Strategic Force in the South China SeaPAFMMPeople's Armed Forces Maritime MilitiaSouth China Sea