Guest Post: Robert Haddick on “Which ships will be combatants in the Taiwan Strait?”

Today’s post is by Lawfire® contributor Robert Haddick who grapples with a very challenging issue: China’s naval capabilities.  In particular, he addresses the “ambiguous legal status of China’s maritime militia, coast guard, and commercial craft” – which collectively number in the many thousands.

He argues that the nature of the activities of these vessels makes them – notwithstanding China’s effort to create ambiguity as to their status – targetable in the event of an armed conflict. 

Robert further contends that the U.S. ought to make this conclusion clear, as it could help communicate that the “maritime militia fishing fleet will likely pay a heavy price for China’s previous ‘gray zone’ tactics.”

I recommend you read his War on the Rocks post, Defeat China’s Navy, Defeat China’s War Plan, in connection with this one, as he provides a strategy to use U.S. Air Force bombers to address China’s waterborne threat.

Robert is a real expert on China; in fact, the second edition of his book, Fire on the Water: China, America and the Future of the Pacific, was just published in August.  I’ve ordered it and I recommend you do too!

Which ships will be combatants in the Taiwan Strait?

By Robert Haddick

In a recent essay for the “War on the Rocks” website, I discussed how the U.S. Air Force’s bombers would be a good matchup against China’s maritime power during a prospective battle for Taiwan. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cannot complete a conquest of Taiwan or elsewhere in the western Pacific if it lost its fleet in combat.

A U.S. and allied military strategy that focused on China’s maritime forces would be an effective way to thwart possible Chinese military aggression.

China’s maritime power is much more than traditional warships. The U.S. Navy’s official strategy document describes three distinct layers to China’s naval power. First are the “gray-hulled” warships of the PLA Navy, which the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) estimates will number over 450 ships by 2030 (by comparison, in April this year the U.S. Navy operated 298 ships).

Next is China’s expansive coast guard, numbering almost 300 cutters by 2030. The third layer is China’s “maritime militia” fishing vessels which ONI describes as “naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels.”

To these three layers, we can add some civilian cargo ships, which the PLA is preparing to use as troop and military equipment transports in wartime.

Add together all four layers and the U.S. military and its allies may have to contend with over a thousand large Chinese naval targets by 2030, with tens of thousands of additional small fishing boats potentially supporting Chinese military operations through reconnaissance, screening, and cargo transfers.

But would all these thousands of vessels really be legal targets during a prospective battle for Taiwan? International humanitarian law requires combatants to distinguish between military and civilian objects, which combatants should not attack. Certainly, the PLA Navy’s “gray hulls” would be military objects.

But what about China’s coast guard cutters, “maritime militia” fishing boats, and civilian cargo ships? When would they be combatants and legal to attack under the law of armed conflict?

There is no universal definition of “naval auxiliary” but vessels engaging in activities directly supporting an effort to achieve military objectives are legal combatants that an opposing force can target for destruction.

Vessels that are armed beyond what is required for personal safety, such as with anti-aircraft guns, missiles, or sea mines, would very likely be combatants.

One example is a heavily armed, 12,000-ton cutter operated by China’s coast guard, a ship larger than the U.S. Navy’s guided missile cruisers. Coast guard cutters are normally considered law enforcement vessels, a status that would change when they participate in military operations.

Vessels ferrying military supplies and soldiers are combatants; the PLA is preparing to use civilian ocean-going car carriers to transport military vehicles to beachheads.

Vessels that are links in a military “kill chain,” such as vessels equipped with sensors and communication devices and that are scouting and relaying intelligence to a military command system, are combatants. The Chinese government has equipped as many as 20,000 fishing boats and small civilian vessels for such a maritime reconnaissance network.”

Over the past decade, China cleverly used the ambiguous legal status of maritime militia fishing boats and coast guard cutters to achieve offensive military objectives.

Chinese maritime militia fishing boats were the lead assault force in the 1974 operation to seize islands in the Paracel chain from the South Vietnamese government.  Maritime militia fishing boats and Chinese coast guard vessels were again in the vanguard for the capture of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012.

China’s use of ostensibly “civilian” vessels appeared to be below the threshold of armed conflict and flummoxed the responses of defending policymakers, who refrained from using military forces to fire on the Chinese vessels.

Chinese leaders may hope that that ambiguity will work again during a prospective amphibious assault on Taiwan. Chinese commanders may attempt to employ “clutter,” swarms of small commercial ships and fishing boats, to confuse U.S. targeting sensors attempting to find the most important ships conducting the Chinese invasion.

Chinese commercial ships, perhaps many hundreds of small fishing boats, would be legal combatants if they participated in this counter-reconnaissance tactic. If war came to the Taiwan Strait, the United States and its allies should issue a notice to mariners to warn civilian ships, such as those aiming to confuse U.S. and allied reconnaissance, against entering a dangerous war zone.

The ambiguous legal status of China’s maritime militia, coast guard, and commercial craft has thus far protected these vessels during their years of expansionary campaigning in the South and East China Seas. If they participate in a military campaign against Taiwan, that legal ambiguity will very likely fall away, and they will become lawful targets.

U.S. and allied policymakers could improve deterrence in the region by making this legal targeting policy clear. But if a naval war begins, China’s maritime militia fishing fleet will likely pay a heavy price for China’s previous “gray zone” tactics that deliberately smudged the line between combatants and protected objects.

About the author

Robert Haddick is a visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Air & Space Forces Association. Naval Institute Press recently published his new book “Fire on the Water, Second Edition: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific.” He is also the director of research at Champion Hill Ventures, based in Chapel Hill.


The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!




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