WASHINGTON Near the top of US Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift's concerns is China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and close behind is the country's burgeoning Coast Guard. But a third government-controlled seagoing force, the little-known and somewhat mysterious maritime militia, is drawing increased attention.
"Let's be careful to not characterize them as, you know, a rag-tag group of fishermen. They're well organized," Swift told a small group of reporters in Washington Nov. 18.
The militia, Swift said, "are structured. [Chinese president] Xi Jinping has gone to visit them, recognized them publicly for their great efforts."
The militia "are operating largely independently out there or in groups," Swift said. And while not strictly a military force, the militia, to Swift, are not acting randomly.
"I think they have a clear command and control. It's transparent to me," he said.
Chinese officials routinely deny any government connection, and have described the militia as fishermen wearing camouflage uniforms for sun protection. On at least one occasion they were referred to as a film crew. Their ships have had a strong hand in numerous encounters at sea and on one occasion obstructed a US Navy surveillance ship and tried to snatch its towed listening gear.
"There needs to be precision in how we talk about the maritime militia," Swift said. "I've made it clear in my conversations with my counterparts that they're being commanded and controlled. And if they're being command-and-controlled I have an obligation to treat them exactly like I do any other unit that's being command-and-controlled."
Swift noted that relationships with the Chinese Navy remain professional, and lauded the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a 2014 agreement establishing procedures and protocols to keep incidents from escalating in scale or becoming violent. At least 21 countries have signed the agreement, including China, but not every Chinese maritime agency is taking part.
"CUES has been incredibly important in reducing the uncertainty," Swift said. "We have a mechanism now that has diminished the impact of the language barrier, we have a mechanism to communicate that transcends the differences between Chinese and English with the PLAN. That was a very positive step."
The US has been urging the Chinese Coast Guard to join the agreement, but so far to no avail.
"We're going to continue to push at it," Swift said. "We're making some progress, the conversation is deepening, but it's been difficult to have the conversation, even to start the conversation."
One obstacle to getting the Chinese Coast Guard on board may be internal politics. The service was formed only in 2013 when five different maritime agencies – often referred to as the five dragons – were brought together.
"I don't think they've fully integrated themselves," Swift observed, and noted the possibility of another traditional sticking point – money.
"There's still a lot of competition between the PLAN and the Chinese Coast Guard from a financial point," he noted.
Swift said he enjoys personal relationships with most Chinese Navy fleet commanders.
"As I talk to my counterparts in China – the South Sea Fleet commander, the East Sea Fleet commander, the North Sea Fleet commander – I know these gentlemen personally. [People's Liberation Army Navy commander] Admiral Wu Shengli, I know him personally as well.
"The discussions we've had is that we have more than an obligation to ensure that a tactical event doesn't occur that takes away maneuver space from our two presidents. We have a responsibility as maritime leaders to ensure that tactical forces don't get so wrapped up in the rhetoric that's occurring at the national level or the international level that they don't think they're defending the sovereignty of whatever their national position is.
"On the US side as well, I caution my commanders on a regular basis about their obligations and responsibilities to the ultimate authority, which is our commander in chief.
"We have complete unanimity and agreement when I talk to my Chinese counterparts," Swift added. "That's absolutely the case."
But opening up communications with the maritime militia remains a vexation.
"I haven't even pushed at the problem of bringing CUES to them because I can't get anyone to acknowledge the veracity of who they are. I can't get that conversation started," Swift said.
"I don't know how to make sure we can communicate with them other than for me to continue to say that the Pacific Fleet will continue to hold anyone responsible that is being directed to execute operations that are counter to freedom of navigation."
It's not even clear to the US why China created the maritime militia.
"I haven't started the process of trying to understand the mechanisms that China has walked through to come to the conclusion that they need a Maritime Militia," Swift admitted. "The fact is that it is there. Let's acknowledge that it's there. Let's acknowledge how it's being command-and-controlled.
"I'm concerned about it. I want dialogue, and the dialogue's not happening," Swift said. "I'd love to have a discussion with my Chinese counterparts – whoever's running them. What is the intent?"
Swift again praised the Chinese Navy for maintaining navy-to-navy relationships.
"Even when we have disagreements, some of the best conversations I have are with my Chinese counterparts," Swift said. "They're precise. They have a level of clarity to them. We understand what the core issues are. We have disagreements because our governments have different policy positions, but we understand the ramifications of getting it wrong.
"That's where I think we need to drive to. And I'm hopeful."
Another Pacific player, however, is ratcheting up tensions in the region, Swift said, and he pointed to a series of provocative exercises between the Russian and Chinese navies.
"There has been a series of bilateral maritime exercises between China and Russia," Swift noted. "At first they were in the Yellow Sea, kind of a safe place to do it. The next series was in the Sea of Japan – a little more edgy. Japan was pretty focused as were South Korea and others as well.
"And now they've done one in the South China Sea, which is even edgier. So that's another example of angst and uncertainty."
Russia is not a CUES signatory.
An "Upgunned ESG"
Swift also is trying out new surface ship constructs to see if his warships can't increase their effectiveness. Under his aegis, a three-ship destroyer surface action group (SAG) just completed a western Pacific deployment during which it was controlled by the California-based Third Fleet rather than the Seventh Fleet in Japan – a move he termed "a laboratory."
A repeat SAG is not yet planned, but in late 2017 Swift intends to deploy what he's calling an "upgunned ESG," or expeditionary strike group, built around the big-deck amphibious assault ship Wasp operating F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. The Wasp will be accompanied by the other ships of its Japan-based amphibious ready group (ARG) carrying US Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa.
But the ARG will be expanded to an ESG by adding three surface ships, likely guided-missile destroyers.
"We'll have the same command-and-control structure as a carrier strike group," Swift said. "The SAG will be made up of three ships that would have been independent deployers."
The commander of the Seventh Fleet amphibious force, a rear admiral, will be embarked aboard Wasp, Swift noted – an upgrade from the senior-grade captain that normally commands an ARG. The enhanced air group and larger surface force, Swift said, "gives you so much more situational awareness that I think it takes a flag officer and his staff to manage that."
Air operations are likely to more closely resemble those of an aircraft carrier and, as with a carrier strike group, one of the destroyers will defend the big-deck amphib as an air warfare commander, Swift said.
Christopher P. Cavas was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.