Aggressive posturing by the Chinese maritime militia and their proclivity to engage in gray zone operations has triggered a chain of reactions and responses by the South China Sea claimant States. One such manifestation is the Vietnamese investments in modernisation of its maritime militia force. Earlier this year, in January, the Vietnamese government announced setting up of a new maritime militia unit in the Vung Tau province. This unit has been provided with at least four TK-1482 class (400-ton steel militia-armed fishing boats built in batches by the Song Thu Group Shipyard in Da Nang) boats. Further, these boats carry two water cannons and Russian-made KVP 14.5 mm machine guns are fitted in the front and the rear.
This new unit at the Vung Tau province is a follow on of the first similar unit set up last year in the southern province of Kien Giang. The government plans to increase the number of “permanent maritime militia and self-defense force” in at least four other coastal provinces. According to a government source, the maritime militia are “purely for defensive purposes and in accordance with international law.”
In 2018, the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence issued directives on “Building permanent militia fleets in the defence of sovereignty seas and islands in the new situation” and tasked the force to “protect the sovereignty of the sea, islands, fishermen, sovereignty, sovereign rights, and national jurisdiction at sea.” Significantly, the Vietnamese maritime militia is part of Vietnam’s armed forces under the 2019 Law on Militia and Self-Defense Force “to protect national sovereignty and border security, islands, waters and back zones of Vietnam and other law enforcement activities, such as combating crime, search and rescue, environmental protection, etc.”
Although the current infrastructure (personnel and number of vessels) of the Vietnamese maritime militia is not known, the China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies estimates the figure between 46,000 and 70,000 personnel in 2021. Also, the Vietnamese maritime militia account for only 0.08 percent of the total number of Vietnamese militia members (as of 2016) in Vietnam and 1.22 percent of the total number of maritime labour.
Meanwhile, a Vietnamese law expert has opined that the “formulation of militia in Vietnam is rooted in the concept of the ‘people’s defense’, which means that the militiamen are mostly fishermen whose focus has primarily been on fishing. Given their occupational primacy, they are “poorly equipped” and often “poorly trained,” These weaknesses have in the past constrained their effectiveness. Notwithstanding, this force was deployed during some of the incidents involving China and Vietnam in the South China Sea as they “stood on the frontline”, in particular, their role during the 2014 standoff involving the Chinese offshore drilling rig Haiyang Shiyou-981 in disputed waters and the 2019 Vanguard Bank standoff. Besides there have been “various unpublicized encounters that happen frequently in the disputed areas.” If these forces are better equipped, they “may take part in tracking and surveillance missions.”
It is not surprising that Chinese analysts have reacted to the modernisation of the Vietnamese maritime militia and Lei Xiaolu, the vice director of Chinese think tank South China Sea Probing Initiative has cautioned that the “use of weapons on the well-equipped militia vessels would entail the risk of causing significant harm to regional security and stability,”
However, it merits mention that the Chinese maritime militia dwarf their Vietnamese counterparts in numbers i.e. 200,000 vessels and fourteen million people working in the commercial fishing sector. The Chinese fishermen are attached to civilian companies and receive military training and political education in order to mobilize and promote China’s interests in the oceans and in particular promote Beijing’s strategic objectives in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
The Chinese maritime militia are considered as the “third arm” of “PLA-law enforcement-militia joint defense” and are known to include of both civilians and soldiers. They are tasked to not only strengthen control, but assert claims in the South China Sea. There have been a number of instances during which the maritime militia engaged in coercive actions and at least three of these have been high profile and attracted international attention : (a) harassment of USNS Impeccable in 2009; (b) Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012; and (c) HD-981 clash in 2014. More recently, in April 2022, the Chinese maritime militia along with the Chinese coastguard attempted to block two Philippine resupply vessels bound for Second Thomas Shoal.
Be that as it may, the Vietnamese government decision to modernize the maritime militia would serve multiple purposes including deterrence against the Chinese Coast Guard and militia and provide surveillance of Vietnam’s waters. Also, this initiative is a low cost solution to undertake surveillance of sea areas closer to the shores.
Image source: Malayalam Samayam
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.