The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia
91 INT’L L. STUD. 450 (2015)
China operates a distributed network of fishing vessels that are organized into a maritime militia to support the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The militia is positioned to conduct a “people’s war at sea” in any future conflict. This strategy exploits a seam in the law of naval warfare, which protects coastal fishing vessels from capture or attack unless they are integrated into the enemy’s naval force. The maritime militia forms an irregular naval force that provides the PLAN with an inexpensive force multiplier, raising operational, legal and political challenges for any opponent.
The sheer size and scope of the vast network of China’s maritime militia complicates the battlespace, degrades any opponent’s decision-making process and exposes adversaries to political dilemmas that will make them more cautious to act against China during a maritime crisis or naval war. The legal implications are no less profound. This article concludes that the maritime militia risks erasing the longstanding distinction between warships and civilian ships in the law of naval warfare. Although the law of naval warfare permits warships to engage civilian fishing vessels that assist enemy forces, it may be virtually impossible to distinguish between legitimate fishing vessels and those that are integrated into the PLAN as an auxiliary naval force. Regardless of whether the maritime militia plays a decisive combat role, its presence in the theater of war confronts opponents with vexing legal and operational dilemmas.
The maritime militia has emerged in parallel with China’s ascent to great power status. As the world’s newest major maritime power, China warrants close attention. The rapid growth in the size and quality of the PLAN has raised concern regionally, as well as in Delhi and Washington, D.C. Since China soon will have the second largest navy in the world, it is especially important to explore the implications of its auxiliary militia force under international law. The four hundred years of custom and State practice embedded in the law of naval warfare may be upended by China’s unorthodox approach to maritime power.
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The paper was originally published by the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law.