WASHINGTON — When the US destroyer Lassen passed near a newly-built artificial island on Subi Reef in the South China Sea's Spratly Islands Oct. 27, it was already being escorted by several Chinese Navy warships. The US ship represented a challenge to China's attempt to create land and declare it and the surrounding areas sovereign territory.
The Chinese naval ships, reported a US Navy source, behaved professionally during the Lassen's transit. "They shadowed the Lassen but stayed at a safe distance."
But several smaller vessels, described by the source as merchant ships or fishing vessels, were more provocative, crossing the Lassen's bow and maneuvering around the destroyer even as they kept their distance.
"There were Chinese merchant vessels present that were not as demure as the Chinese Navy," the US Navy source said Oct. 30. "One came out of its anchorage in the island and crossed the destroyer's bow but at a safe distance, and the Lassen did not alter course as the merchant ship circled around."
Fishing vessels in the area added to shipping traffic in the immediate area, the source said. But the extra craft seem to have been present, the source noted, "because they anticipated the Lassen's transit."
China has been known to use civilian ships as government proxies, often to harass foreign vessels, and several analysts have been scrutinizing current and recent incidents to determine who's on board those mysterious vessels.
Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the US Naval War College and well-known authority on Chinese naval and maritime affairs, is pretty sure he knows. He suspects the Chinese naval militia, forces he's dubbed "little blue men" — a reference to the "little green men" employed by Russia in Crimea and the Ukraine to insinuate military forces into a region without clear identification.
One clue, Erickson noted, is that there usually aren't that many fishing vessels around Subi Reef.
"Actual numbers of fishing vessels regularly present in the Spratlys appear relatively low," he observed Nov. 2. "If you look at it rationally, it's pretty clear the operators of those fishing boats were maritime militia, especially to have done that maneuver" around the destroyer's bow.
"China is trying to use these government-controlled fisherman below the radar to get the bonus without the onus to support its South China Sea claims," Erickson said. "It's a phenomenon little-known or understood in the US.
"While Russia's little green men in Crimea are widely known, insufficient attention has been paid to China's little blue men in the South China Sea," he said. "It's so different from what the US does. People aren't familiar with it, it's hard to wrap their heads around it."
At least a half dozen nations are jockeying for territorial claims in the western Pacific, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, North and South Korea and Japan. The most volatile region at the moment is the South China Sea, a region strewn with half-sunken or submerged reefs that could be the key to access energy sources, including oil and natural gas.
"As China is trying to show opposition to these freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea," Erickson said, "we need to be more attuned to the types of vessels and types of personnel they may send there to create a more complex picture and even to push back."
Erickson and his associates have discovered that militia have been involved in numerous incidents, including confrontations in March 2009 when several Chinese fishing vessels harassed the US intelligence ship Impeccable in the South China Sea.
"We have traced Chinese maritime militia to direct involvement in the Impeccable incident," Erickson said, "and in the HYSY 981 oil rig incident with Vietnam [when numerous Vietnamese ships were rammed by the Chinese, with at least one sinking, in a three-and-a-half-month standoff in 2014], and potentially with Chinese pressure on the Philippine resupply effort of Second Thomas Shoal" in March 2014, where the Philippines have stationed a grounded naval ship on a disputed shoal.
Erickson noted that at the time of the Impeccable incident militia involvement was not widely discussed, but it has now been confirmed by images and written evidence. Now, "we're trying to get ahead of the curve so that we can actually figure out who these trawlers belong to that were spotted near USS Lassen. I think it's highly unlikely that it was a coincidence. If you read Chinese maritime doctrine … this is right out of the playbook of typical techniques that they use and are designed for."
Reports of the Lassen incident, Erickson observed, are "empirical evidence matching up very closely to what Chinese writings on the maritime militia say its designed to be able to do, including obstruction activities."
The militia on board the ships are often clearly identifiable.
"They have uniforms — many if not all of them have uniforms. We have many photographs of them with their uniforms," he said. The PLA Daily, a People's Liberation Army publication, even speaks to this.
"So China's trying to have it two ways here," he noted. "Besides deception and confusion, US and allied rules of engagement might be very restrictive against fishermen.
"China is trying to use these maritime militia forces to put it in a position that frustrates us in our ability to respond."
Erickson and his associates have tried to determine who is controlling the militia.
"The militia, often drawn from local workers or demobilized troops, are organized in a somewhat complex manner, reporting initially to local People's Armed Forces Departments (PAFD). When activated, though, they could report directly to naval authorities," Erickson said.
"In peacetime their responsibilities include supporting China's Navy and Coast Guard. They always answer to the People's Liberation Army through the PAFD. But they also report to whatever agency they're supporting at the time."
While there are dozens of militia, several units stand out as frontline elements, Erickson noted.
"The majority of maritime militia are less elite, do more mundane transport, crewing, repair, coastal patrolling, and emergency response. But there is a small elite that is better manned, trained and equipped. They are developed to support those more advanced types of missions. Which include, theoretically, some wartime capabilities."
That the militia are an entity unto themselves, in addition to the Navy and Coast Guard, is only recently becoming apparent.
"This is not a type of force we understand well enough," Erickson said. "They could conceivably achieve some advantages through elements of surprise and confusion. Then even if we know who they are and what they're doing we might have great difficulty dealing with them because of our rules of engagement. China could go out of its way to mis-portray some of these personnel as random patriotic fishermen, as vocal 'residents' of these 'islands' in the Spratlys. They're very good at that kind of propaganda warfare."
A greater awareness of the militia and their techniques, Erickson said, could weaken their effectiveness.
"These forces have their greatest power when they're least known, least anticipated. The more we can call them out to foresee their presence and actions in advance, the more power we can take away from them. These are forces with rather limited capabilities overall. And if they're exposed as militia that answer to the PLA chain of command it can be seen in a different light."
Erickson is trying to get the word out about the militia, and published an Internet piece on Monday tying those forces to the Lassen's transit.
The US and China, in an effort to reduce the possibility of violence, agreed earlier this year to an agreement, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). But the agreement only covers the Chinese Navy, not its other maritime services.
Erickson noted that while relations between the US and Chinese navies might be cordial and professional, the Coast Guard and militia are not bound by the same constraints.
"There's a potential problem whereby China's Navy is bear-hugging the US Navy to learn more about our best practices, talking the talk of a good cop, while the bad cops — the Coast Guard and maritime militia — are doing the dirty work in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
"Our approach to China's maritime forces and our interaction with them is incomplete," Erickson said, "so long as two of the three sea forces are running around doing stuff that we consider very negative."
Christopher P. Cavas was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.