Pentagon officially recognizes China’s ‘third naval force’ as threat to U.S. security

The 2018 annual Defense Department report to Congress, released last week, for the first time provides official recognition, and extensive coverage of, China’s “third naval force” — the shadowy People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM).

The PAFMM is its own naval entity behind the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Chinese Coast Guard, but the way in which Beijing utilizes the force is what’s noteworthy.

The government uses the PAFMM to “advance its disputed sovereignty claims across the South and East China Seas,” The National Interest reports, adding that the PAFMM often sails with the first sea force, the PLAN, and the second sea force, the Coast Guard.

In its report to Congress, the Pentagon including an “unprecedented” Fact Sheet, in which it offered a recent example of how China employs the PAFMM.

“China . . . is willing to employ coercive measures to advance its interests and mitigate other countries’ opposition. . . . In August 2017, China conducted a coordinated PLA Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia patrol around Thitu Island and planted a flag on Sandy Cay, a sandbar within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef and Thitu Island, possibly in response to the Philippines’ reported plans to upgrade its runway on Thitu Island,” the Fact Sheet notes.

It should be noted as well that each of China’s sea services is one of Bejing’s three armed services. Also, each is the world’s biggest in terms of numbers of ships.

“The PLAN, CCG, and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) form the largest maritime force in the Indo-Pacific,” the report said, emphasizing three main points:

— First: “The PLAN is the region’s largest navy, with more than 300 surface combatants, submarines, amphibious ships, patrol craft, and specialized types,” the report continues (the U.S. Navy, by comparison, currently has 282 deployable warships).

— Second: “Since 2010, the CCG’s fleet of large patrol ships (more than 1,000 tons) has more than doubled from approximately 60 to more than 130 ships,” the report adds, “making it by far the largest coast guard force in the world and increasing its capacity to conduct simultaneous, extended offshore operations in multiple disputed areas.”

— Third: The PAFMM is the world’s largest and most capable maritime militia force, and one of just a few such forces currently in existence.

Vietnam, a country politically and bureaucratically similar to China, “is known to have a roughly equivalent force with a roughly equivalent mission,” The National Interest reported. But Vietnam’s naval forces do not come close to rivaling those of China.

Analysis: What makes this “third naval force” unique — and worrisome — is the manner in which China utilizes it. The PAFMM fleet operates in what is known as the “gray zone,” an asymmetric operational area that is not military in nature and not completely civilian, either, but which nonetheless advances China’s singular objective of dominating the South China Sea and surrounding strategic waters.

What’s more, as the Pentagon report makes clear, China has utilized PAFMM vessels to help it enforce disputed territorial claims as well as harass U.S.N.S. vessels.

“In the South China Sea,” the report points out, “the PAFMM plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting, part of broader PRC military doctrine stating confrontational operations short of war can be an effective means of accomplishing political objectives.”

Based on documented incidents, the force not only operates in the South China Sea but also has been authorized to conduct coercive, intimidation operations in the East China Sea as well. Operating in a manner short of war makes figuring out an appropriate response to the provocative actions far more difficult. Rival powers in the region could employ the same tactics, but the problem is they don’t have the additional naval power to back up such moves. Plus, by operating regionally, China can mass ships and overwhelm competitors, including the United States’ own naval support vessels including those in the region to collect intelligence.

The fact that the Pentagon officially recognizes this third force and has identified how it threatens U.S. and allied interests in the South and East China Seas accomplishes two objectives: 1) It puts China on notice that its actions are being closely monitored; and 2) It puts China on notice that the Pentagon is developing plans and policies to counter China’s third naval force tactics — which will have to occur at some point if the goal is to force China to end its coercion operations.

The bottom line is that the PAFMM is just another tool Beijing is employing to exert more control over all sea and shipping lanes throughout Asia as it expands its economic and diplomatic reach as well.

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