Numbers Matter: China’s Three ‘Navies’ Each Have the World’s Most Ships

    Andrew S. Erickson

    Security, Asia

    China Coast Guard vessels patrol past a Chinese fishing vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, April 5, 2017. Reuters/Erik De Castro

    Numerical superiority allows China’s second and third sea forces to flood the maritime gray zone in ways that its neighbors, as well as the United States, may find very hard to counter.

    As a friend’s five-year-old puts it, “China has three navies: the regular navy, the police navy and the sneaky navy.” Each of these three sea forces is the world’s largest of its type by number of ships—at least by some measures. China is truly a maritime power in its own right, and its sea forces’ numbers matter in important ways. In maritime “gray zone” operations, Beijing employs its enormous coast guard and maritime militia to further its disputed Yellow, East and South China Sea sovereignty claims using coercion short of warfare. This article, which is part one in a series, will focus on these quantitatively superior second and third sea forces.

    More formally, China’s Armed Forces comprise three major organizations, each with a maritime subcomponent. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contains the PLA Navy (PLAN); the People’s Armed Police (PAP) increasingly leads China’s Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) forces, including the China Coast Guard (CCG); and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) contains a growing proportion of seagoing units. The CCG and PAFMM, clearly the world’s most numerous by any logical measure, are the focus of this article.

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