Indonesia Mobilizes Its Own ‘Little Blue Men’ as Stand-Off Continues With China Over Disputed Waters

An Indonesian air force pilot prepares for taking off in an F-16 at air base in Pekanbaru, Riau on Jan. 7, 2020. Indonesia has deployed fighter jets and warships to patrol islands near the disputed South China Sea, the military said on Jan. 8, escalating tensions with Beijing after a diplomatic spat over "trespassing" Chinese vessels. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

News Analysis

Indonesia is retaliating against China’s use of tens of thousands of “Little Blue Men” to harass South China Sea traffic by enlisting its own fishing fleet as a maritime militia.

Jakarta lodged an official diplomatic protest to Beijing on Dec. 30 in response to three China Coast Guard and approximately 63 fishing vessels entering Indonesia’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Indonesia’s waters include the 272 islands of the Natuna archipelago that lie in the strategic confluence of the South China Sea to the north and northeast, Karimata Strait to the southeast, and Strait of Singapore to the west.

The China Coast Guard vessels were pursued out of the area by Indonesian Navy corvettes, but the fishing armada have remained on the fringes of Indonesian waters in what has developed into a protracted stand-off over China’s 2009 declaration to the United Nations for “historic maritime rights” to a U-shaped “nine-dash line” extending about 1,200 miles south of its mainland. China’s claims encompass 90 percent of the South China Sea and would take away huge swaths of Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei EEZ territorial waters.

China has organized its civilian fishermen into militarized maritime militias, commonly known as “Little Blue Men.” Although the UN denied its “nine-dash line” declaration in 2016, China has used swarms of “Little Blue Men” to take over and militarize artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and other South and East China Sea locations.

With the world’s largest fishing fleet comprised of over 220,000 motorized vessels and 2,500 boats capable of traveling to “distant waters,” one of the first military initiatives by Chinese leader Xi Jinping was making a historic visit in 2013 to Hainan Province’s Tanmen Maritime Militia to reinforce the patriot role of all maritime workers.

Over the next year, Tanmen was supplied with military communications equipment. In addition, 32 days of conventional training, 18 days of intensified training, and 9 live-fire training sessions were held. The structure was extended to the 3.7 million workers in China’s fishing collectives that were organized into militia units and trained to assist the navy, coast guard, and other maritime law enforcement agency to protect China’s maritime interests.

The “Little Blue Men” are structured into two major subcomponents: “ordinary” reserves of registered males, similar to the U.S. Selective Service pool; and “primary” forces that can quickly mobilize to respond to various contingencies. The ordinary forces serve in large battalion formations, while primary forces serve in small specialized tactical units that receive dedicated resources, troops demobilized from active duty, and training.

The sheer numbers and complex integration of “Little Blue Men” has frustrated other nations’ efforts to protect their territorial waters. China parked an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and illegally started drilling. The incident sparked deadly riots in Vietnam, but the ship continued drilling for 135 days. Last March, a Chinese fishing boat rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat operating in established territorial waters.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the Natuna Islands on Jan. 8 in response to rising tensions. Once called the “Barack Obama of Indonesia” for efforts to avoid taking sides in Sino-U.S. tensions, Widodo appointed anti-Chinese former general Prabowo Subianto as Defense Minister after his reelection in April. Indonesia in September participated in the historic first joint-naval exercises with the United States and the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Gulf of Thailand.

Given the military challenge to respond to China’s hybrid warfare use of “Little Blue Men,” Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD, told reporters on Jan. 8 that around 120 fishermen from the island of Java would be sent 600 miles north to the Natuna Islands as the equivalent of Indonesia’s “Little Blue Men.”

President Widodo told reporters shortly thereafter: “There is no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty.”

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