The People’s Liberation Army Navy possesses between 313 and 342 warships, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated last year.
But the PLAN accounts for only a fraction of China’s maritime power, according to Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
“China’s armed forces comprise three major organizations, each with a maritime subcomponent that is already the world’s largest such sea force by number of ships,” Erickson wrote in Indo-Pacific Defense Forum.
Beside the PLAN, Beijing’s maritime organizations include the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, or PAFMM.
The coast guard and maritime militia help the Chinese Communist Party to pursue its foreign policy goals. “Not seeking war but determined to change the status quo coercively, Beijing employs its enormous second and third sea forces in so-called maritime gray zone operations to further its disputed sovereignty claims in the near seas (Yellow, East and South China seas),” Erickson wrote.
The coast guard and militia have grown alongside the PLAN, Erickson revealed. “China’s second sea force, the coast guard, is … the world’s largest, with more hulls than those of all its regional neighbors combined: 225 ships over 500 tons capable of operating offshore and another 1,050-plus confined to closer waters, for a total of 1,275.”
New coast guard ships are much more sophisticated than the vessels they’re replacing. “In terms of qualitative improvement, China has now replaced its older, less-capable large patrol ships,” Erickson wrote. “It is applying lessons learned from scrutinizing the ‘gold standard’ U.S. and Japanese coast guards, as well as the CCG’s increasing experience operating farther offshore for longer periods. The resulting new ship features include helicopters, interceptor boats, deck guns, high-capacity water cannons and improved seakeeping.”
The maritime militia likewise has grown and modernized. “Since 2015, starting in Sansha City in the Paracels, China has been developing a full-time militia force: more professional, militarized, well-paid units including military recruits, crewing 84 large vessels built with water cannons and external rails for spraying and ramming,” Erickson explained.
“Lacking fishing responsibilities, personnel train for manifold peacetime and wartime contingencies, including with light arms, and deploy regularly to disputed South China Sea features even during fishing moratoriums.”