Vietnam is strengthening its maritime militia. In late January, it held a flag-hoisting ceremony in Vung Tau province for a new militia unit consisting of five gleaming steel-hulled boats that Chinese researchers claim are equipped with heavy machine guns.
Six months earlier, the first such unit of Vietnam’s “permanent maritime militia and self-defense force” was established in another southern province, Kien Giang. Similar units are planned for at least four other coastal provinces, according to state media.
This is widely seen as a response to China’s maritime militia, which is far larger and better-equipped, and a key lever in Beijing’s effort to assert control in the contested South China Sea.
But Chinese analysts argue that arming the Vietnamese militia could stoke tensions and threaten regional security. That’s a charge often leveled at China, particularly when its vessels mass around disputed reefs and islets.
Vietnam insists its militia operates “purely for defensive purposes and in accordance with international law.”
Not part of the armed forces
Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam expert, says the nation’s maritime militia was only instituted comparatively recently. Prior to 2009, Vietnam did not have a formal entity called the maritime militia, he said.
“The role of the maritime militia and self-defence forces evolved gradually over time but to this very day they remain an organic part of Vietnam’s Militia and Self-Defence Forces and not a separate service like the Vietnam Border Guard or Vietnam Coast Guard,” said Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales.
In June 2005, Vietnam adopted the Law on National Defense, in which the tasks of the Militia and Self-Defense Forces were enumerated but still “no mention was made of the maritime militia.”
To compare, China’s modern use of fishing militias dates back to at least 1974 when they were employed in seizing the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, according to a report published in November 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington D.C.
The U.S.-government-funded research organization Rand Corp. alleged that China’s maritime militia was actually formed in the 1950s and answers directly to the People’s Liberation Army.
Thayer said that Vietnam’s maritime strategy that included the need for developing national defense in coastal and maritime areas was first publicly announced in 2007.
So it developed much later than the Chinese maritime militia, and both the scale and resources are far inferior.
“The formulation of militia in Vietnam is rooted in the concept of the ‘people’s defense’, meaning militiamen are mostly fishermen,” said Viet Hoang, a maritime law expert based in Ho Chi Minh City.
“They are not only poorly equipped but also often poorly trained,” said Viet, pointing out that several government programs to transform wooden fishing boats to steel-hull boats with better defensive capabilities for fishermen have failed “because their interest was just fishing.”
There’s no official figures of how large the Vietnamese maritime militia is but China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies estimated that it totalled between 46,000 and 70,000 personnel in 2021.
The maritime militia accounted for only 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, according to a report in Vietnam’s National Defense magazine authored by Col. Nguyen Phuong Hoa.
In contrast, China’s maritime militia is mostly organized by the country’s large fishing companies.
Research by Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy in 2016 found the only estimate of the size of the Chinese maritime militia was from a source published in 1978, which put the number of personnel at 750,000 on approximately 140,000 vessels. This number has likely grown substantially since.
In its 2010 Defense White Paper, China stated that it had eight million militia members nationwide, including maritime militia.
Analysts argue that China’s assertive activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims historical rights to almost 90 percent of the sea, led to Vietnam’s rushed plan to expand its maritime militia and self-defense forces.
The tactics are somewhat similar to the so-called “gray-zone tactics” of the Chinese maritime militia, where fishermen are trained to do paramilitary work and fishing boats get armed.
“Gray-zone tactics” are when unconventional forces and methods are used to pursue strategic interests while trying to avoid the possibility of a conflict.
Vietnam’s maritime militia was present at several recent incidents in the South China Sea, such as the 2014 standoff over the deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou-981 drilling rig near the Paracel islands and some confrontations near where Vietnam and international partners explored for oil and gas.
Analysts say the new “permanent” militia units are intended to be more combat ready than regular maritime militia and could play an active role in confrontations.
“For more than a decade, Vietnam has expended huge manpower and material resources in developing maritime militia,” wrote Ding Duo, deputy director of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, in the China Daily newspaper.
According to Ding, 126 fishing boats manned by maritime militia from 14 coastal provinces and cities will be built in Vietnam during the period 2019-2022.
Chinese analysts alleged that Vietnam’s new TK-1482 class militia vessels are equipped with weapons including large caliber heavy machine guns.
“The use of weapons on the well-equipped militia vessels would entail the risk of causing significant harm to regional security and stability,” warned Lei Xiaolu, vice director of the South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Chinese think tank.
Yet Vietnamese researchers like Viet Hoang said that the main focus of Vietnamese maritime militia remains fishery, search and rescue.
“They may take part in tracking and surveillance missions but the lack of training and resources poses a great obstacle to their capabilities,” he said.
Canberra-based expert Thayer said that Vietnam will continue to gradually expand and modernize its standing maritime militia as new TK 1482-class vessels are commissioned into service.
“However, Vietnam’s standing maritime militia and self-defense forces will remain under the control of local and provincial authorities,” he said.