Little Blue Men: China & US Privateering

In recent years, China rapidly increased its global power. One of its main focus is the nine-dash line maritime claim. It was rejected going against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as part of the line overlaps with its neighbouring countries exclusive economic zone. The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) or so-called Little Blue Men is a government-funded maritime militia of China

It operates in the South China Sea and is sometimes referred to as ‘Little Blue Men’, also considered as a third sea force. The armed fishing fleet is part of China’s power projection, to deploy, seize and target anyone who challenges Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Based on Hainan island, they engage in “buzzing” US navy ships and those of neighbouring countries. This means they come too close to the Navy ships and act dangerously around them.  Although the UN denied its “nine-dash line” declaration in 2016, China has used swarms of ‘Little Blue Men’ to take over and militarise artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and other South and East China Sea areas.

Little Blue Men

What is at Stake?

China’s control of the sea is important for the United States as it poses a threat to international trade. China challenges the liberal rules-based order the United States promoted since the Pacific War. To maintain its geopolitical position in the western Pacific, the US is obliged to defend the regional alliance system and reassure local powers who are concerned about China’s intentions.

Outside of establishing presence and control in the contested maritime region, and efficient maritime militia can also provide significant human intelligence (HUMINT) support. The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Little Blue Men are civilians nonetheless and are able to travel inconspicuously throughout several maritime regions due to fishing vessels not being obliged to use Automatic Identification System, making it easier to conduct surprise attacks and go unnoticed.

China’s Grey Zone Strategy

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies classifies a grey zone as the efforts to advance one’s security avoiding military conflict. By using civilian craft and personnel, China is avoiding direct military-to-military confrontations and gaining an element of deniability; in which military rules of engagement prevent countermeasures. This strategy is similar to President Putin’s ‘Little-Green-Men’ strategy of deploying civilian militia forces to support Russian operations during the Crimean Crisis. This way, China is expanding and taking control with no overt violent clashes with any other states.

Little Blue Men

Tanmen Maritime Militia Company’s presence in the Paracel and Spratly Islands is based on its historical claims.

Furthermore, Tanmen fishermen detained or attacked by foreign states also support the growing Chinese narrative about the so-called victimisation of Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea, justifying China’s defensive activities.

Similar to Russia’s “Little Green Men”, China’s “Little Blue Men” are most successful when the element of surprise on its side. These forces are most effective when unnoticed. China deploys PAFMM in three ways to achieve that:

  • Move in swarms to obstruct the freedom of operation of an adversary, as seen in USS LASSEN on FONOPS in October 2015.
  • To land troops and supplies on disputed island territories, such as the landing on Paracel islands in 1974.
  • Undertake surveillance and support operations for the PLAN, from harassing fishermen from other nations to ramming their vessels, evident during the Haiyang Shiyou Oil rig with Vietnam in 2014.


Until the 19th century, a significant portion of the naval power of many countries was provided by privateers. Privateering arose when Western European nations found themselves unable to maintain standing navies beyond a negligible size or even any at all. Privateers were private citizens, companies or even pirates, which were widely employed by warring governments because they were extremely effective in their appointed task: damaging the ocean-going trade, including the military supply operations of enemy nations. 

The downside of privateering was that a government also faced monitoring problems with privateers because commerce raiding was costly to monitor. It could not directly observe the behaviour of crews at sea and direct observation of enemy prizes was impractical given the long-time lags involved. Adding to this, neutral vessels and privateering posed a threat. In spite of the fact that privateers were usually careful to avoid actual combat, their goal was to seize the richest cargo at the lowest cost.

Privateers had a commission from some recognised authority, so they had the legal right to stop, search, board and seize foreign vessels and their cargo, but, were restricted by rules so as to not commit criminal actions like not seize any neutral vessel. This could risk getting a neutral country going to war to protect its interests and citizens. Privateering represented a form of legalised theft of private property. It was cheap and damaged economies and war efforts.

By law, the US Navy cannot attack in a grey-zone area. In the US Naval Institute, retired Colonel Mark Cancian and Brandon Schwartz explore the possibility of privateering as a way to fight the Little Blue Men without involving the US Navy, as US privateering is not prohibited by US law. This approach would be a direct attack on Chinese global trade and undermine China’s economy and threaten its regime’s stability.

The American experience with military contractors throughout “War on Terror” means the existing private military industries would make privateers a quick and effective to grow America’s capability in comparison to China’s power. In wartime, privateers could destroy the maritime industry. Therefore, it would strengthen deterrence and thereby prevent a war from happening. Considering China as a power, rather than deterrence it would be regarded as a provocation that could invite retaliation.

This means it could target not only US-flagged vessels but all shippers in US ports. The United States depends on foreign trade as much as China does and most of that trade is shipped by sea. Using privateers would have a direct impact on international relationships as per the UN Charter and could incite an international war.


China’s strategic grey-zone tactics have set international unrest in the South China Sea. The US Naval Institute considered privateering would protect China’s neighbouring countries in the dispute of the China Sea as well as maintain stability in international trade. American private military industries would be a quick way to do so although that would put the world at risk of war. 

Image: ROK Coast Guard / Chosun Daily (link)

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