A series of recent reports from the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) at Peking University’s Institute of Ocean Research have arbitrarily labeled Vietnamese fishermen as “maritime militia” based on limited AIS data without further supporting evidence. But without a clear understanding of the Vietnamese maritime militia, such arguments are at best whataboutism and at worst a purposeful disinformation campaign. Vietnam’s maritime militia is not a mysterious force that can only be speculated about—there is ample documentation on its organization, equipment, and activities.

To understand the organizational structure of Vietnam’s maritime militia, one needs only to look into its legal foundations: the 2009 and 2019 Laws on Civil Defense Forces (the latter will take effect in July 2020). The latter is a revised version of the former, which takes into account many circulars and decrees promulgated in the meantime. Before 2009, there was no formal entity called the “maritime militia,” just militia units operating in coastal areas with no distinction between missions on land and at sea.

In 2010, two kinds of organizational models were implemented. The first, Dân quân biển, are maritime militia units that are based on administrative areas. They are provided for in Issue 2 of Article 15 of the 2019 Law on Civil Defense Forces, which states that “coastal or insular communes can organize squads or platoons of militia.” These squads and platoons are mostly mobile units, as fishing activities required them to venture out to different fishing grounds.

Dân quân biển represent local fishers who receive training and allowances from the government to be conscripted into the militia force. Their roles are defensive in nature, especially in wartime. Dân quân biển reflects the true motives behind the notion of “people’s war.” In peacetime, they are normal citizens engaging in fishing as their means of livelihood and fulfilling the duty of protecting their fellow citizens and the country’s sovereignty. In an ideal condition, each coastal commune will have at least one to two platoons of these dân quân biển (each platoon has 27-30 militia members). They will then organize themselves either into smaller squads (9-10 members per squad, each squad owning a fishing vessel) or into even smaller groups of 3 to 4 members with each group assigned to a different fishing vessel. In wartime, these fishers-turned-militias will defend their commune against the enemy, engage in guerilla and attrition warfare, and play a vital role in logistical and surveillance support.

Tự vệ biển, on the other hand, are maritime militia units established by enterprises (usually state-owned). According to Issue 3 of article 15 of the 2019 Law on Civil Defense Forces, enterprises that have a maritime operation “can organize squads, platoons, divisions or squadrons of maritime militia.” This indicates that these enterprise-based maritime militias have a bigger organizational structure than their commune counterparts (as a squadron of Tự vệ biển is several hundred members, equivalent in size to a military battalion), and they are better trained and equipped than the typical fishing militia.

One example of an enterprise with a militia unit is the 128 Co., Ltd (also known as the Vạn Hoa Group). This military-owned enterprise, headquartered in Hải Phòng, was established in 1971, first as an armed fishing firm and then as a maritime company. It has diversified its business into a variety of other activities such as supporting the exploitation of crude oil and natural gas, cultivation of marine aquaculture, fisheries services, and shipbuilding, among others. Another prominent group is the 129 Co., Ltd (Trường Sa Group) based in Ho Chi Minh City and Vũng Tàu, which has similar operations.

There are two types of vessels that can often be observed operating in the service of these companies and their militia units: the TK-1482, a class of 400-ton ironclad fishing vessels equipped with modern fishing gear; and the 1,200-ton Truong Sa-class logistic ship (Truong Sa being the Vietnamese name for the Spratly Islands), which is often seen accompanying other smaller fishing vessels. Ships of both types have stood on the frontline against Chinese forces in several maritime incidents in recent years, including the 2014 standoff over China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou-981 drilling rig in disputed waters, the 2019 Vanguard Bank standoff, and various unpublicized encounters that happen frequently in the disputed areas.

Vietnam’s maritime militia has some general similarities with China’s. Both countries, with a legacy of struggle against larger “imperialist” forces in their recent history, see “people’s war” as one of the core principles in military doctrine, with militia forces as an important element. And, like China’s, Vietnam’s maritime militia is charged with “defending national sovereignty and border security,” especially protecting the sovereign rights and jurisdiction over Vietnam’s claimed waters and islands. But while the ends may be similar, there is a clear distinction in their means, both in terms of resources available and tactics employed.

Vietnam’s militia force, especially its maritime militia, simply cannot compete with its Chinese counterpart in terms of financial and human capital. According to the National Defense Journal, maritime militia (both dân quân and tự vệ) accounted for just 0.08 percent of the total number of militia members in Vietnam and 1.22 percent of the total number of maritime laborers as of 2016. Nearly 8,000 fishing vessels have maritime militia units serving on board, accounting for only 1.07 percent of the total registered fishing vessels in Vietnam. In 2020, the Vietnamese government aims to reduce the number of Vietnamese fishing vessels to 110,000, which would lead to an even further reduction in maritime militia units.

China’s maritime militia, mostly organized by the country’s large fishing companies, is notorious for its active role in China’s assertive operations dating back at least to the 1974 seizure of the western portion of the Paracels. In contrast, Vietnam’s maritime militia has played a defensive and reactive role, being deployed in response to Chinese militia and coastguard activities aimed at asserting Beijing’s claims and denying Vietnam access to resources within its own claimed exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

The maritime militia in Vietnam also plays an important role outside of its “military” functions. Dân quân biển, the fishers-cum-militia, are deployed to propagate the domestic law on fishing and combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing (as Hải Phòng province’s maritime militia has shown). Since 2017, the Vietnamese government has been working to lift a yellow card issued by the European Union because of insufficient efforts to meet regulations to deter and eliminate IUU fishing. Thus, accusations that Vietnam is using IUU fishing to promote its maritime militia activities ignores the country’s economic policy. If IUU fishing is happening, it represents a failure of the Vietnamese government, not a deliberate choice. Accusing all fishing vessels that wander into Chinese waters of spying or branding them maritime militia is both ill-informed and misleading.

The author would like to thank Ms. Pham Thanh Van for her help in the completion of this commentary.

About Nguyen The Phuong

Nguyen The Phuong is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-HCMC and at the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative.