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China's Maritime Militia

What It Is and How to Deal With It

Fishing boats leave a harbor in China's Zhejiang Province, September 2012.  Stringer / REUTERS

Last October, when the American destroyer USS Lassen sailed by Subi Reef, an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, a number of Chinese merchant ships and fishing boats maneuvered around it, apparently having anticipated its approach. The Lassen was on a freedom of navigation operation, meant to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to maintaining open access to the area, much of which China claims as its own. China was using an unusual resource to broadcast its opposition to the trip: ships that appeared to be crewed by civilians, but in all likelihood were actually controlled by state-sponsored forces taking orders from China’s military.

To promote its disputed claims in the South China Sea, China is increasingly relying on irregular forces such as these, which together form what China calls its maritime militia. In recent years, maritime militia units have played important roles in a number

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