Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA, China Maritime Report 1 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, March 2017).
Amid growing awareness that China’s Maritime Militia acts as a Third Sea Force which has been involved in international sea incidents, it is necessary for decision-makers who may face such contingencies to understand the Maritime Militia’s role in China’s armed forces. Chinese-language open sources reveal a tremendous amount about Maritime Militia activities, both in coordination with and independent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Using well-documented evidence from the authors’ extensive open source research, this report seeks to clarify the Maritime Militia’s exact identity, organization, and connection to the PLA as a reserve force that plays a parallel and supporting role to the PLA. Despite being a separate component of China’s People’s Armed Forces (PAF), the militia are organized and commanded directly by the PLA’s local military commands. The militia’s status as a separate non-PLA force whose units act as “helpers of the PLA” (解放军的助手) is further reflected in China’s practice of carrying out “joint military, law enforcement, and civilian [Navy-Maritime Law Enforcement-Maritime Militia] defense” (军警民联防). To more accurately capture the identity of the Maritime Militia, the authors propose referring to these irregular forces as the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM).
Like a tetherball, the PAFMM may be sent in many different directions when contacted by different players in the Chinese security space, but is often directed by the PLA and always remains tied to the PLA.
–Leading elements of China’s Maritime Militia have already played frontline roles in manifold Chinese incidents and skirmishes with foreign mariners throughout the South China Sea.
–The Militia is a key component of China’s Armed Forces and a part of what it calls the “People’s Armed Forces System” (人武系统).
–China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is therefore the most accurate name for this Third Sea Force of China.
–Directed participation by PAFMM forces in international sea incidents or provocations occurs under the PLA chain of command, and sometimes also under the temporary command of the Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE).
–The PAFMM is thus a state-organized, -developed, and -controlled force operating under a direct military chain of command to conduct Chinese state-sponsored activities.