China’s People’s Liberation Army aims to “modernize its capabilities and improve its proficiencies across all warfare domains so that, as a joint force, it can conduct the full range of land, air, maritime, as well as nuclear, space, counterspace, electronic warfare (EW), and cyberspace operations,” says a new Defense Department report detailing China’s maritime aims and capabilities.
“The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen the PRC’s ability to ‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy’ (a euphemism likely for the United States), counter an intervention by a third party in a conflict along the PRC’s periphery, and project power globally,” says the annual report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.
China intensified pressure on Taiwan in 2021, and the report notes that “increased provocative and destabilizing actions in and around the Taiwan Strait” could include a maritime blockade or “full-scale amphibious invasion” by the PRC of Taiwan or nearby islands as military options.
“As the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage, the PRC is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes: submarines, warships, and auxiliary and amphibious ships,” the report notes. “China also has developed underwater systems, publicly revealing a long-range system in 2019.”
Over the past decade, China has “employed a more coercive approach to deal with several disputes over maritime features, ownership of potentially rich offshore oil and gas deposits, and border areas,” including overlapping claims with Japan in the East China Sea and China’s claim of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, with the PRC using its navy, coast guard, and maritime militia to patrol the region — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have rejected China’s claims and asserted their maritime sovereignty.
People’s Liberation Army exercises that included an element in which they capture islands increased from 13 observed exercises in 2020 to more than 20 in 2021.
And while claiming that international maritime exercises tread upon their exclusive economic zone, China has begun conducting military activities in the EEZs of other countries “including the United States,” the report said, including sending intelligence collection ships to the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise off Hawaii in 2014 and 2018, and operating near Alaska in 2017 and 2021.
China has also expanded its maritime presence in the polar regions, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” and maintaining research stations in Iceland and Norway with two icebreaking research vessels. “The PRC’s expanding Arctic engagement has created new opportunities for engagement between the PRC and Russia,” the report adds.
“Interoperability and integration” continues to “grow in scale and sophistication” between China’s navy, coast guard, and maritime militia.
The “rapid expansion and modernization” of the China Coast Guard “has made it the largest maritime law enforcement fleet in the world,” with a 2019 study published by the U.S. Naval War College estimating that the CCG has more than 140 regional and oceangoing patrol vessels of more than 1,000 tons displacement — some of these are former naval vessels that were transferred to the coast guard. “The newer, larger vessels are equipped with helicopter facilities, high-capacity water cannons, interceptor boats, and guns ranging from 20 to 76 millimeters,” the report continues. “In addition, the same academic study indicates the CCG operates more than 120 regional patrol combatants (500 to 999 tons), which can be used for limited offshore operations, and an additional 450 coastal patrol craft (100 to 499 tons).”
The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia is an armed reserve force with units that “vary widely in composition and mission.” Its vessels train with and assist China’s navy and coast guard “in tasks such as safeguarding maritime claims, surveillance and reconnaissance, fisheries protection, logistics support, and search and rescue.”
“China employs the PAFMM in gray zone operations, or ‘low-intensity maritime rights protection struggles,’ at a level designed to frustrate effective response by the other parties involved,” the report states. “China employs PAFMM vessels to advance its disputed sovereignty claims, often amassing them in disputed areas throughout the South and East China Seas. In this manner, the PAFMM plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting, and these operations are part of broader Chinese military theory that sees confrontational operations short of war as an effective means of accomplishing strategic objectives.”
These maritime militia vessels are “often used to supplement CCG cutters at the forefront” of maritime incidents, “giving the Chinese the capacity to outweigh and outlast rival claimants.” They also protect and enable Chinese fishing vessels operating in disputed waters; mainland-based maritime militia units that routinely operate in the Spratly Islands and southern South China Sea “are enabled by increased funding from the PRC government to improve their maritime capabilities and grow their ranks of personnel.” Days jobs of maritime militia members include marine industry work such as fishing, yet one militia unit in the Paracel Islands “has developed into a salaried full-time maritime militia force equipped with at least 84 purpose-built vessels armed with mast-mounted water cannons for spraying and reinforced steel hulls for ramming along with their own command center.”
The report also notes a “sharp increase” in “unsafe and unprofessional behavior” appearing to target the U.S. and partners exhibited by China’s vessels and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region, “risking a major incident or accident in the region.”