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The Legal Status and Characterisation of Maritime Militia Vessels

Published on June 18, 2019        Author: 

A recent report has described how Royal Australian Navy helicopter pilots were targeted with lasers during a night flight in the South China Sea. The lasers were allegedly directed from Chinese fishing vessels – the primary cadre from which the so-called Chinese ‘maritime militia’ is drawn. Further, the incident occurred – according to another report – shortly after a US admiral warned that the paramilitary force could be treated as ‘combatants’. 

What is the Chinese maritime militia? As described below it is a hybrid body (or bodies), but in essence it is a civilian reserve force (often of fisherman) capable of being called upon to conduct military or governmental activities. A number of recent official reports (eg, US, and Japan), have specifically commented upon the rise in China’s employment of this force multiplier in the South and East China Sea regions. At a certain level such a force may be benign, called upon to assist in search and rescue efforts. The concern, however, is that militia vessels are also being used to further Chinese strategic claims in disputed waters by – for example – harassing the fishermen of other states – including by sinking their vessels, as is reported to have occurred with a Philippines fishing vessel just a few days ago. In another episode, Chinese fishing vessels formed a cordon around Chinese oil exploration vessels operating off Vietnam.

The concept of a ‘maritime militia’ is relatively recent, but not without historical parallel. There has long been (and remains) well settled law around the practices of privateering, use of merchant vessels as auxiliaries to naval forces, and conversion of merchant vessels into warships. In this post, however, I will briefly outline two status and characterisation challenges ahead – or rather, already with us – presented by the increased use of maritime militia by China in the current geo-political and legal context: The status and characterisation of militia vessels under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the customary law of the sea; and their status under the Law of Naval Warfare (LoNW). Read the rest of this entry…