The People's Liberation Army in the South China Sea: An Organizational Guide

Posted: 19th January 2022
By: Insikt Group®


Editor’s Note: The following post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

This report profiles the organizational structure of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on China's outposts in the South China Sea. The analysis draws heavily from Chinese-language open source materials, including state media reports, government websites, resumes, procurement records, academic writings, and patents, as well as visual materials, such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery. The report will be of most interest to governments and militaries with an interest in Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region, companies seeking to comply with PLA-oriented export controls, and defense analysts focused on the PLA. The author, Zoe Haver, thanks Roderick Lee, Morgan Clemens, and Kenneth Allen for their generous support.

Executive Summary

People's Liberation Army (PLA) units operating from militarized outposts in the South China Sea defend China's expansive maritime and territorial claims while also projecting power into maritime Southeast Asia. To better understand the organization of the PLA in the South China Sea, Recorded Future identified and analyzed 9 specific PLA units that are deployed to Chinese outposts. These units are Unit 91431 (the "Nansha Garrison"), the Xisha Maritime Garrison Command, the 3rd Radar Brigade, the Yongxing Airfield Station, the Sansha Garrison Command, Unit 91531 ("a Navy engineering unit"), the Xisha Satellite Observation Station, Unit 92155 ("a naval aviation air defense brigade"), and Unit 92508. We also examined several other units that have maintained at least a marginal presence on China's outposts at various points, including the PLA Navy Marine Corps 1st Brigade, Unit 92690, Unit 92053, and Unit 91522.

Our report assesses the organizational structures, duties, and facilities and assets of each identified PLA unit. The majority of these units are regiment leader-, division deputy leader-, or division leader-grade organizations. They are responsible for defending China's outposts in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, operating radar installations, ensuring airfield support for aviation forces, training and commanding maritime militia forces, implementing engineering projects, supporting the launch and orbital management of spacecraft, and providing air defense. All of these units maintain a physical presence in the Paracel or Spratly Islands, but many also have supporting facilities on Hainan or the Chinese mainland.

Key Judgments

  • Though China's outposts in the South China Sea have hosted PLA forces for many years, these outposts went through a period of significant militarization over the past decade, with multiple new units being established and existing units undergoing organizational upgrades, building improved facilities, and receiving new assets.
  • Several PLA units are present in the South China Sea, including units from the PLA Navy's shore command structure, the PLA Navy's naval aviation branch, China's national defense mobilization system, and the PLA Strategic Support Force.
  • The PLA forces in the South China Sea include units that are primarily based in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, such as location-specific garrisons, as well as detachments of units that are primarily based on Hainan, such as battalions under radar and air defense brigades.
  • The PLA units present on China's outposts in the South China Sea actively participate in military-civil fusion programs, including engaging in joint operations and exercises with civilian forces, drafting regulations with civilian authorities, and coordinating the construction and use of physical infrastructure with civilian entities.
  • PLA units in the South China Sea are positioned to contribute to broader strategic objectives, such as near-seas defense and space situational awareness, in addition to their primary focus on the protection of China’s maritime and territorial claims.
  • In addition to the PLA forces that have a standing presence in the South China Sea, some units likely maintain a more limited presence on China's outposts, potentially deploying personnel on an ad hoc basis.

Editor’s Note: This post was an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.