Unveiling the Role of Maritime Militias in the South China Sea: A Recent Exercise and Its Implications

Christian Baghai
4 min readMay 29, 2024

In a dramatic show of force, the US military, in collaboration with Filipino forces, recently obliterated what appeared to be an old fishing vessel during joint military exercises in the South China Sea. This event was not just a simple training drill but a significant geopolitical statement, underscoring the escalating tensions in this disputed maritime region.

The Exercise: A Show of Strength

On May 8, 2024, US and Philippine forces, backed by Australian air surveillance, launched a comprehensive attack on a decommissioned Philippine navy vessel used as a mock target. This exercise was part of the annual Balikatan drills, which saw the first deployment of the Army’s Mid-Range Capability in a simulated maritime strike. The coordinated assault involved high-precision rockets, artillery fire, and airstrikes from platforms like the US Air Force F-16s, Philippine Navy fast-attack boats, and an AC-130J Ghostrider, leading to the vessel’s dramatic sinking amid billowing black smoke.

Despite assertions from US and Filipino officials that the drills were not aimed at any specific country, the underlying message was clear: a demonstration of military readiness and a warning to China about its assertive maritime activities. The drills took place near the fiercely contested Spratly Islands, highlighting the ongoing struggle for dominance in the South China Sea, an area rich in resources and strategic significance. The exercise aimed to maximize training value, keeping the target vessel afloat for as long as possible before ultimately sinking it.

The Third Naval Force: China’s Maritime Militia

A critical aspect of the South China Sea tensions is the role of China’s maritime militia, often referred to as the “third sea force” alongside the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the China Coast Guard. This paramilitary fleet, composed of civilian fishing vessels, is employed to assert China’s territorial claims and harass other nations’ vessels, operating in a legal grey area that complicates direct military responses. The militia’s actions have included surrounding the USNS Impeccable in 2009 and deploying grappling hooks to damage US naval assets.

The roots of China’s maritime militia can be traced back to historical practices where nations used privateers to project power and disrupt adversaries. In modern times, these militia boats have been involved in aggressive maneuvers, such as ramming and blocking Philippine vessels in disputed areas. Beijing’s use of the maritime militia is part of a broader strategy to enforce its expansive claims in the South China Sea, challenging international law and regional stability.

Strategic Implications

China’s use of maritime militias in the South China Sea leverages a vast civilian fleet, estimated to include around 3,000 deep-sea fishing vessels capable of dual civilian and military roles. This strategy enables China to enforce its claims with plausible deniability, maintaining that these are civilian vessels even as they engage in military-like activities. The maritime militias are a crucial part of China’s broader strategy to exert control over the region, serving not only as a first line of defense but also extending China’s military reach. They provide logistical support, surveillance, and can even engage in direct confrontations under the guise of civilian activity.

Since completing the construction of its artificial island outposts in the Spratly Islands in 2016, China has intensified its focus on asserting control over peacetime activity in the South China Sea. The maritime militias play a significant role in this shift, frequently accompanying Chinese law enforcement vessels during standoffs with Malaysia and Vietnam over oil and gas explorations. The presence of these militias has become increasingly visible, with satellite imagery and open-source data revealing their movements and activities. For instance, an average of 195 militia vessels were documented in 2023, a 35% increase from previous years, showing heightened activity around key features like Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal.

International Response and Future Outlook

The United States and its allies are becoming more vigilant about the threat posed by China’s maritime militias. Recent military drills by the US and its partners are a clear signal of their commitment to countering Chinese aggression. There is a growing call for a more structured response, including the creation of a comprehensive database to identify militia vessels and updates to rules of engagement to better address these hybrid threats. This strategy aims to expose the militias’ activities and diminish their effectiveness as a gray zone force.

The sinking of a mock fishing vessel during the Balikatan drills highlights the larger strategic contest in the South China Sea, illustrating the complex interplay of military might, international law, and unconventional warfare tactics employed by China. As tensions continue to escalate, the role of maritime militias will likely remain a focal point in the struggle for dominance in this critical region. The international community’s response, including increased surveillance, identification efforts, and military readiness, will be crucial in managing and potentially mitigating the impact of these militias.