“In this particular operation, we can actually conclude that this Chinese fishing vessel is not just a fishing vessel but a Chinese maritime militia taking orders from the Chinese coast guard to support their operations in blocking our resupply,” Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela said at a briefing last week [in August]. [...]

Western experts warn that the alleged militia – with hundreds of boats allegedly funded and controlled by the People’s Liberation Army – is a force to be reckoned with. As the Whitsun incident showed, they say, it could be used to swiftly surround any disputed reef or island, acting either alone or in concert with the coast guard or the PLA Navy. [...]

China, for its part, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any such maritime militia. In the past, when questioned, it has referred to the ships as a “so-called maritime militia.”

Ray Powell, director of SeaLight at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, said the militia helped China operate in the “gray zone,” by carrying out actions just below what might be considered acts of war but that achieve the same result – Beijing gaining territory or control without firing a shot. [...]

The Chinese vessels “physically blockaded the supply ship. It’s hard to deny that there is an actual blockade going on,” Powell said.

An official blockade by the PLA Navy would be an act of war, the analysts point out. But by using the militia instead – keeping things in the gray zone – China keeps the operation below the level of a confrontation that might require a response under the US-Philippines mutual defense treaty, the analysts say.

So if China denies the "little blue men" militia exists (as that CNN piece calls it), why does the US have any qualms about fighting it? Can't they claim they are fighting pirates or something like that?

  • 2
    But the Chinese government claims that basically all of the South China sea belongs to it, so they would just say that the USA was illegally conducting anti-piracy operations in its territorial waters.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 30, 2023 at 2:49
  • 2
    It is hard to fathom how shooting up unrecognized Chinese boats would lessen international tensions or improve US standing with regional allies. Think of it as a provocation if you must: going in all hot and heavy will not make any country look good. And it risks stoking US-China fires to no great purpose, to "defend" negligible assets. Dec 30, 2023 at 3:02
  • Officially, these are civilian boats conducting commercial fishing. When hard-pressed, they could be a "patriotic citizens defending their territory". But no matter what they are, the threat the Chinese military poses to the US would ensure such "anti-piracy action" is a no-no. It isn't 2001 when the US could just ram a Chinese aircraft and feel good about it anymore. THEY SWORE THIS UPON THE GRAVE OF THE DOWNED PILOT.
    – Faito Dayo
    Dec 30, 2023 at 3:04
  • 4
    @FaitoDayo GRAVE OF THE DOWNED PILOT. A cynical person, not me, might ask themselves, in aeronautical terms how a fat, slugglish, stately, P3 Orion might ram into an agile Chinese jet fighter, which, of course, given its superior speed and agility, was keeping off to, what 1000 feet or so separation, which is the norm with air traffic. But, no, of course, your reading of the events is more correct. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hainan_Island_incident en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_(aeronautics) Dec 30, 2023 at 5:59
  • 4
    @NoDataDumpNoContribution: "China will deny every have denied anything" LOL. Dec 30, 2023 at 21:16

2 Answers 2


As explained in the comment by Faito Dayo, I don't think the US could do a lot more than they currently do without this being seen as an act of war against China by China.

First, according to the Chinese government, these boats are commercial fishing boats. I'm sure they also do some fishing. Second, I'm fairly sure they carefully choose who they can bully around. So they will gladly blockade some Philippine supply ship. And at the same time, if some US Navy ships pass by, they will be peacefully fishing.

The US does conduct freedom-of-navigation operations where US Navy ships sail around the South Chinese Sea. While China certainly doesn't like it when the US does that, they are also very careful if or how much they can molest.

So if the US were to attack some of these boats, China would claim that the US just attacked some civilian fishing boats and treat this as a US act of war.

  • I don't see the point of a claim in the last paragraph. If the US attacks a Chinese boat, whether it be civilian or military, it's an act of war. No need to "treat" it as such.
    – uberhaxed
    Dec 30, 2023 at 17:16
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    @uberhaxed - It's very relevant, because the reaction of the country whose vessel was attacked is a large part of what determines whether a single incident escalates into a war. For instance, does anyone here remember the Iranian-Ukrainian War? No?
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 30, 2023 at 17:18
  • @Obie2.0 whether a conflict escalates into a war or not has nothing to do with something being an act of war.
    – uberhaxed
    Dec 30, 2023 at 20:09
  • The US could probably mimic the Chinese though and also send their people without uniforms there to molest the Chinese people molesting other people there. That would give them some cover to plausibly deny that they are involved in the public. However, if this would be worth it and would result in a positive outcome, isn't so sure. Dec 30, 2023 at 21:18
  • "if the US were to attack some of these boats". There are degrees of that. Nobody claims Russia attacked some Turkish vessel, for instance. OTOH when Israel did nearly the same thing with the "Gaza flotilla", but resulting in some 9 (IIRC) Turkish deaths on board... Dec 30, 2023 at 21:18

Military actions could escalate tensions and potentially lead to a broader conflict, which neither side may desire. This is why the U.S. wouldn't attack those vessels.

Moreover, if there is clear evidence that the fishing vessels are directly engaged in hostile activities or poses an imminent threat to the security of U.S. forces or interests, military action may be justified under the principles of self-defense. However, any such action must still adhere to the principles of proportionality and necessity under international law. Because those fishing vessels don't pose any menace and are often just a nuisance to U.S. military ships, the U.S. would be seen as the aggressor if a military incident does occur between the U.S. military and the Chinese militia.

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