On 15 Jun 2020, in the dark of the night, there was a scuffle on a high ridge at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh between the Indian Army and Chinese troops. There were significant casualties on either side and the incident has brought India and China to the brink of an escalated conflict. Technically, the Chinese did not violate the 1996 bilateral agreement of not using firearms within two kilometers of the LAC, but they used weapons that were primitive and barbaric. This demonstrates China’s strategy of exploiting loopholes in international agreements, while overtly being a signatory to the same.
It is not the first time China has circumvented internationally accepted rules of engagement to its advantage. The country uses several tools to administer non-traditional threats and undercut a spectrum of international agreements, from trade to currency regulation, resource mining, fishing, and more.
One manifestation of such non-traditional threats in the maritime domain is through China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), also known as, ‘the little blue men.’ Well-known Chinese Maritime and Naval affairs scholar, Professor Andrew Erickson, from the U.S. Naval War College, highlights the many ways that China has used PAFMM in the past and how it plans to use them in future conflicts. The PAFMM are recruited from fishing communities but are part of a well networked and controlled defense force. They use fishing vessels that appear civilian in nature, but which are strengthened to be able to ram and damage other fishing vessels. These militia are armed when at sea, and while many wear uniforms in their role as militia, they can pass off as regular fishermen when not in uniform. They are designed to confuse the engagement decision matrix of a regular navy, since the rules of engagement against fishing vessels are generally benign. They are trained by regular maritime forces in the use of small arms and anti-air weapons, to lay mines and to support the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as a maritime reserve force for blockade, supply logistics, and transportation of troops.
PAFMM has a long history. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) created the PAFMM in the late 1950s to defend its Eastern coastline from “nationalists” under Chiang Kai-Shek who had retreated to Taiwan after the civil war. The PRC first utilised them as an offensive force in 1974 in the battle for Paracel islands against South Vietnam. They were used to land PLA troops on the island, which resulted in the surrender of South Vietnamese troops stationed there and the China’s occupation of the islands. A recent RAND study highlights how this incident helped China realize that using fishing militia forces did not result in a military response from the U.S. even when the threatened country was a U.S. ally. Beijing has since main-streamed the PAFMM and used them most recently in January 2020, during the Natuna Island incident with Indonesia.
Historically, China deploys PAFMM in three ways to support strategic maritime operations:
a) First, they move in swarms to obstruct the freedom of operation of an adversary. This was seen when USS Lassen was deployed for Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) near the disputed Spratly Islands in Oct 2015.
b) Second, to land troops and supplies on disputed island territories such as the 1974 landing on Paracel islands.
c) Third, to undertake surveillance and support operations for the PLAN. This includes harassing fishermen from other nations, sinking them by ramming their vessels, and blocking activities by other nations in areas that China disputes. Many of these actions were evident during the Haiyang Shiyou Oil rig incident with Vietnam in 2014.
The legalities for conventional naval forces in dealing with maritime militia are complex due to the nature of these vessels. Fishing vessels have a distinctly civilian appearance, and as per international law, are not targeted during conflicts. The PAFMM however, while displaying overtly civilian character, transition to military behaviors when undertaking activities in support of China’s naval operations and then revert to a civilian character during the same deployment. This can prove difficult for naval commanders to assess and deal with. It also complicates the rules of engagement that need to be issued to naval and coast guard forces to tackle such non-traditional threats.
For the Indian Navy and Coast Guard the challenge is to mitigate the threat posed in the event that China deploys the PAFMM in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China could do this in the following ways;
a) First, to deny freedom of operations to the Indian Navy in the Eastern Indian Ocean, especially as it seeks to detect the entry of any Chinese submarines into the IOR. Large swarms of Chinese fishing vessels in choke points, at the time of a submarine transit, could render any search operation unsuccessful due to the ambient underwater noise generated by the fishing vessels. Such an eventuality should be taken into account by the Indian Navy.
b) Second, maritime militia can be used to land PLA troops on remote and detached Indian islands in the Andamans or Lakshadweep. This allows military possession of the islands for a limited duration to provide strategic leverage for negotiating favorable terms for a truce.
c) Third, when conjoined with large Chinese fishing fleets, the militia can be used as surveillance assets dispersed over the IOR. They can also undertake surprise attacks on naval assets in open oceans, including jamming communications and mining important waterways.
To mitigate the above challenges, the Indian Navy will have to track Chinese fishing fleets more frequently. Unlike larger vessels, which transmit their identity as per international law (via the Automatic Identification System), and therefore can be tracked by satellites; fishing vessels are not obliged to transmit their identities, and most of them do not. Therefore, tracking fishing fleets requires conventional surveillance efforts on a larger scale.
Additionally, countering the possibility of China’s maritime militia landing and occupying an island for instance, would also alter the navy’s primary offensive maritime task into performing a policing role in the EEZ. An additional practical difficulty would be that of differentiating Indian fishing vessels from any foreign ones operating in the area. Towards this goal, there is a need for the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard to work with the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying to standardize regulations for Indian fishing fleets, which is being pursued through the Marine Fisheries (Regulation and Management) Bill.
Finally, the 15 June incident in Ladakh shows that China will not hesitate to use non-traditional methods to alter status quo. This means the navy must provide robust training and new rules of engagement for its crews as well,to tackle ‘grey zone’ threats, including countering conventional attacks from vessels merged within large fishing clusters. This requires the use of technology, exchange of intelligence on fishing clusters, training and war-gaming of ‘less than war’ situations – which the Indian navy already does, but which it needs to intensify urgently, to prepare for a possible unconventional escalation.
Commander Digvijay Sodha has 20 years of experience in the Navy leading strategy & operations. He has a MA in Defence Studies, Kings College, London and a MSc in Nautical Sciences and Tactical Operations, Cochin University of Science and Technology.
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