Using 1202 Authorities to Counter China’s Maritime Militia
In early April 2020, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and a Vietnamese fishing boat collided near Woody Island in the South China Sea. The Chinese government claims this island as sovereign territory. Accounts of the incident differed at the time. China claimed the Vietnamese fishing boat had illegally entered the area and refused to leave after being ordered by Chinese Coast Guard personnel and then collided with a Chinese vessel after making dangerous maneuvers. Vietnamese Coast Guard officials contend the Vietnamese fishing vessel was deliberately rammed by the Chinese Coast Guard. The eight crew members of the sunken vessel were picked up by Chinese Coast Guard sailors along with two Vietnamese craft, which were towed back into port.
This event is instructive. The Chinese government used guerrilla tactics and violence below the level of armed conflict to assert its strategic interests in the South China Sea. This approach to regional affairs has no easy comparison with conventional U.S. military applications. This asymmetry in approaches to regional affairs creates a serious challenge for the United States and its regional allies and partners. The danger is that without a proportional means of response, the Chinese government will continue to push the envelope as other nations attempt to avoid escalation through military confrontation.
As the People’s Republic of China expands claims within the South China Sea, the United States should work with partners to find a way to deter further expansion while avoiding escalatory actions that could spark conflict. To do so, the United States government should leverage Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act. This section allows for the United States military to create, develop, train, and maintain partner relationships with irregular maritime forces from across the region. By working with partners, the United States empowers regional nations to defend their respective interests against the encroachment of China while reducing the need for American naval forces to be the sole ever-present bulwarks in the region.
These partners would leverage lessons learned from Sri Lanka in the 1990s and help create a coterie of U.S.-enabled forces to protect regional infrastructure and national interests. These forces could also help enforce territorial control over disputed territory where China has sought to expand its influence far from its shores.
Six nations claim territory in the South China Sea, which include small islands, land formations, and natural resources beneath the water’s surface. The United States is involved in these territorial issues for two reasons: to empower and defend its partners in the region, and to project American power ensuring freedom of navigation for its navies throughout Asia, both of which are underpinned by the economic drivers of trade and investment in the region. Partners prioritize their interests in the preserving of their recognized territorial sovereignty and the ability to extract accompanying resources. These interests are often at odds with China’s — and sometimes with each other.
Beijing has expanded its use of conventional naval forces, including the navy and its maritime militia — an irregular force of Chinese fisherman. Beijing exercised these forces in February when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel engaged a Filipino patrol vessel with high-grade lasers as it attempted to approach the Second Thomas Shoal on a resupply mission to forces there.
Irregular warfare employs “the use of indirect, non-conventional methods and means to subvert, attrite, and exhaust an adversary, or render irrelevant, rather than defeat him through direct conventional military confrontation,” providing China a method to exert their claims in the region while minimizing escalation risks that could lead to a high-end conflict. Mao Zedong pioneered the use of guerrilla warfare in China. In his book, On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao defined the role of militias as a force supporting the better trained and equipped guerrilla forces against their adversaries. Should China continue to build up their maritime guerrilla activities in the region, U.S. naval vessels will face greater risk of harassment from Chinese maritime militia forces. This would risk escalation in a highly contentious theater. Reduced maneuver space could result in decreased power projection, in turn providing opportunity for continued Chinese government claims to more territory. Continued Chinese militia and military harassment in the South China Sea could degrade faith and confidence in American leadership, driving those nations closer to China as a security partner.
The cause of these aggressive activities lies in the understanding of one of China’s self-proclaimed strategic endstates: building the country into a maritime great power. Beijing has evolved this strategy to incorporate efforts to divert regional and international attention away from the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that rejected China’s South China Sea claims in favor of the Philippines. Instead, China has sought to force its coastal neighbors into bilateral agreements more favorable to Beijing’s maritime interests. The asymmetric tactics of Chinese naval forces provide the tools by which China executes this strategy, ultimately providing a greater sense of effective control over the region for political leaders. The South China Sea holds particular significance for the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese government wants to exploit the region’s natural resources. The South China Sea also serves as a strategic waterway through which approximately 39 percent of Chinese trade passed in 2016 — including more than 80 percent of its daily oil and natural gas requirements.
Beijing has tasked their military to enact “forward defense,” which expands the military’s reach beyond China’s borders to broaden its strategic depth. To achieve this, the military has adapted the Maoist guerrilla tenet to “establish bases … in territory controlled by the enemy so as to deny him access to, and free use of, the water routes,” from which the Chinese maritime forces can launch harassing attacks to further deny freedom of movement to its neighbors. These measures have been implemented in concert with deliberate capability growth with both China’s navy and marine corps to backstop harassment tactics with regular military forces. Sustained maritime harassment measures require overseas strategic support points to enhance the navy’s ability to maintain awareness through an integrated intelligence network across Southeast Asia, further enabling the Beijing’s effective control of its neighbors and United States.
What to Do About It
Current American efforts to deter these activities have relied heavily on Freedom of Navigation Operations, or the transiting of U.S. Navy vessels through international waterways that China claims as its own. This policy is designed to demonstrate American military influence throughout the region. However, this approach means that the United States does not have persistent presence in contested areas.
To overcome this issue, the United States should look to an example from the Sri Lankan Navy’s response to the Sea Tigers — a maritime militia active in the 1990s. The Sea Tigers understood the strategic importance of the sea for survival and worked to degrade the mobility of the Sri Lankan naval forces. The group crafted fiber glass boats, smaller and faster than Sri Lankan naval vessels, equipped them with large outboard engines, and employed “wolf pack” tactics against adversaries. They initiated attacks by surrounding Sri Lankan naval vessels before firing on them or ramming them with suicide boats, causing considerable damage to the national navy’s fleet. These small, agile, and heavily armed speed boats held an asymmetric advantage over the larger, heavier ships of the Sri Lankan Navy, enabling the Sea Tigers to effectively leverage guerrilla tactics against their adversary. The Sri Lankan Navy, ill-equipped and unprepared to combat such a threat, found itself ceding freedom of maneuver to the terrorist organization. In the Sea Tigers case study, the Sri Lankan government was eventually forced to evolve its navy, creating the Fourth Fast Attack Flotilla, comprised of heavily armed fast-attack speed boats that were capable of using the Sea Tiger maritime guerrilla tactics against them.
Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act gives the United States the legal authorities to establish, train, and support unconventional maritime partner forces. This approach could be used to augment the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. These partner forces would operate on behalf of their respective governments to counter Chinese naval forces and help create a coalition of nations to deter Chinese maritime aggression. These U.S.-trained forces could also be used to secure natural resources and commercial interests, strengthen respective economies, and enable political and economic independence from China.
These 1202 programs would build capacity in irregular maritime elements to resist Chinese maritime aggression in their territorial waters. The goal of these irregular forces would be effective employment in defense of military and commercial vessels and degrading the capabilities of Chinese naval operations in the host nation’s territorial waters. These surrogate forces, operating under the purview and authorities of their respective national governments and in close coordination with their naval forces, could also be tasked with targeting Chinese military assets that attempt to assert illegal claims within the South China Sea, defending host-nation sovereignty.
In addition to training teams, the United States should provide materiel assistance to the surrogate forces, especially in nations that cannot provide those assets organically. Guerrilla warfare operations are “not dependent for success on the efficient operation of complex mechanical devices, highly organized logistical systems, or the accuracy of electronic computers,” so efforts should ensure simplicity of hardware requirements and supply chains. To enable sustainability of the programs, military hardware such as the small watercrafts, motors, and fuel should be derived from indigenous sources whenever possible, further enabling host-nation sovereignty and reducing the risk of perceived dependence on the United States. Enacting these measures in the earliest stages of these irregular platforms will also enable an American exit strategy that allows for management and sustainment requirements to eventually be assumed by host nations.
By empowering regional partners, the United States can help the countries counter Chinese aggression by supporting international legal action or pursuing joint political negotiations through the Code of Conduct framework that results in fair practices for all parties. Through political empowerment of our regional partners, in concert with military capacity building, there is potential for the development of a regional bloc of nations that hold sufficient influence to effectively counter Beijing’s aggression and unfair legal practices within the South China Sea.
Implications of Execution
The development of these surrogate forces across regional partners will enable nations to better assert their legal claims within territorial waters. This would nest within current American efforts to expand conventional force posture in the region but would ensure that power projection and freedom of maneuver assurances would originate organically from partner-nation navies. Raising the collective military naval power baseline of regional partners enables the organic protection of their respective maritime assets, as well as defend against Chinese vessels illegally operating within territorial waters. This approach could help compel Beijing to readdress their maritime strategy both bilaterally with China’s coastal neighbors and collectively against a coalition of sovereign nations.
Three critical errors must be avoided. First, these forces need to be disciplined and employed judiciously. Second, escalation with China has to be managed. Third, these forces should operate as part of a broader diplomatic strategy to ensure the fair adjudication of territorial disputes. The first refers to the risk that host-nation governments could easily take this maritime capability and prioritize its employment against domestic enemies in lieu of deterring Chinese vessels within their territorial waters. Seeing the irregular force as a pathway to receive low-cost training and materiel from the United States, those governments could assign guerrilla forces to other missions that fail to contribute to the counter-China line of effort. Long-term operational partnership with American forces in the Indo-Pacific region could help mitigate this risk. The second refers to the risk that employing a surrogate force against the Chinese naval forces could escalate future engagements, resulting in more dangerous and reckless encounters. The Chinese government argues that the South China Sea is their legal territory, which allows the government to extract natural resources and navigate freely. The third critical error would be for policymakers to believe that the military capacity-building effort will succeed on its own. These military partnerships must be integrated into a whole-of-government approach, incorporating both diplomacy and capacity building into a multi-national approach to containing China’s expansionist efforts. American partner-nation sovereignty claims should be substantiated and reinforced through continued political dialogue within both multi-lateral institutions and bilateral political agreements. This will enable cooperation and coordination in deterring Chinese naval aggression in the region. To suppress Beijing’s expansionist actions, the South China Sea Code of Conduct should be updated to better define fair maritime practices in the region, protecting coastal states from additional Chinese gains. Concurrently, multi-lateral organizations should take the lead to hold member nations accountable for their actions in the region and enact punitive measures when states stray outside established legal norms and boundaries.
The April 2020 sinking of the Vietnamese fishing vessel by the Chinese Coast Guard was just one example demonstrating the trend of increasingly aggressive Chinese actions taken in the South China Sea to assert dominance in the region. The Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia employ guerrilla tactics of harassment and violent engagements below the threshold of armed conflict to exercise effective control over an area rich in natural resources and commercial trade, unafraid to test other nation’s sovereignty with military might.
Current Southeast Asian national navies are under-prepared and ill-equipped to challenge the unconventional methods of Chinese militias without risking escalation, requiring a novel approach to reassert their own territorial claims through the development of tailored, maritime guerilla forces trained and equipped to engage Beijing’s maritime forces in aggressive activities. Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act provides the scalable authority for U.S. military forces to partner with regional surrogate forces to generate an irregular warfare capacity that provides an asymmetric advantage over Chinese conventional forces. The United States can empower these coastal states to work together — both militarily and politically — to assert their respective sovereignty in the region and deter further aggressive Chinese actions that harm national interests. The development of these maritime surrogate forces will generate long-term, combat-credible deterrence against China.
Steve Sacks is a Marine Corps Reserve intelligence officer and former lead analyst in the service’s Pentagon-based China Research Group. He currently works as a security and risk advisor in the private sector based out of Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed here by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense or his current employer.