This article was written by Alex Hollings and originally published on

If war were to break out in the Pacific between China and the United States, the U.S. Navy would find itself in an extremely difficult predicament. While America does maintain the largest and most powerful navy in the world, its security obligations are similarly far-reaching. The U.S. Navy serves as more than a defensive force for the nation; it is a means of force projection to back American foreign policy. The United States Navy also serves as a stabilizing presence in shipping lanes the world over, ensuring the free trade of goods over heavily trafficked waterways that could otherwise be susceptible to the whims of bad state actors or even smaller pirate or terrorist regimes.

As a result of these obligations, the United States Navy cannot actually leverage the entirety of its sea-power in any one region without that leaving security and stability operations elsewhere in the world compromised. And therein lies the source of a great deal of confusion when it comes to comparing military strengths on a global scale. Many Americans are quick to point out that the U.S. has the most powerful military force, and therefore, should be able to exact quick and definitive victory over less technologically advanced forces like the People’s Liberation Army-Navy China. While a comparison of aircraft carriers suggests a rapid American victory, a comparison of forces that could actually be leveraged in such a conflict does not paint quite as rosy a picture for American analysts.

The truth is, despite America’s naval power, China could actually devote far more combatant resources to a fight in the Pacific than America likely could. This is in part because of the aforementioned limitations on America’s defense apparatus, and also because China’s Navy is not the only force Americans would find themselves squaring off against. China would almost certainly also leverage their Coast Guard and even Maritime Militia in such a conflict, in addition to the nation’s massive stockpile of ballistic missiles, including hypersonic anti-ship missiles that America currently lacks any means of reliable defense against.

China’s Maritime Militia

China’s rarely discussed Maritime Militia is often discounted by Chinese-based analysts for good reason. The intent behind utilizing such a force is to conduct military operations that fall within the “Grey Zone,” which is a term used to characterize aggressive actions that do not quite meet the criteria to be considered an overt act of war. Grey Zone operations have become an area of increasing focus for nations like China and Russia, which use forces like China’s Maritime Militia or Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group to conduct what are effectively military operations outside the formal control of their parent state. In other words, China uses its fleet of large fishing boats and Russia uses its private mercenaries to conduct offensive operations. Each respective government can then deny responsibility, as we have seen in places like Libya, Syria, and the South China Sea in recent years.

However, despite Chinese officials and media personalities discounting the presence of China’s Maritime Militia, satellite imagery and eyewitness reports continually show these large fishing ships conducting aggressive operations against foreign vessels. Additionally, China’s Military Service law outlines in clear language what role these vessels play in China’s military apparatus. The law, which was first written in 1984 and then revised in 1998, orders the Maritime Militia, “to undertake the duties related to preparations against war, defend the frontiers and maintain public order; and be always ready to join the armed forces to take part in war, resist aggression and defend the motherland.”

It is important to note that China considers the entirety of the South China Sea to be China’s frontier in need of defending, despite the international consensus that China’s claims over the waterways are illegal.

A Chinese Coast Guard cutter (

China’s massive Maritime Militia fleet of fishing vessels is numbered in the hundreds. It is important to note that this militia is made up of large vessels, some reaching as large as 500 tons in size. These are not recreational fishing boats — they are deep sea-capable vessels that routinely turn off their legally mandated Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceivers to make it nearly impossible for nations other than China to accurately track the size or location. Satellite imagery shows that these vessels very rarely deploy actual fishing equipment and instead spend a great deal of their time anchored — which while entirely unprofitable, is perfectly in keeping with the understanding that these ships are not actually intended for commercial use.