Deciphering China’s Armed Intrusion Near the Senkaku Islands
Image Credit: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan

Deciphering China’s Armed Intrusion Near the Senkaku Islands

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How to interpret the late-December appearance of an “armed” China Coast Guard ship near the Senkaku (a.k.a. Diaoyu) Islands?

The two tiny turrets fore and aft are not the story. Other Chinese vessels have sailed these waters with deck guns. Japanese ships operating here are, of course, armed. And in any case, the use – or threat – of force is inimical to the chief aim of China’s Senkaku Island patrols: i.e., to “demonstrate” Chinese sovereignty without risking military conflict. Acts of aggression, when they do occur in these waters, usually involve threatening others with collision, in which case the ship itself is the instrument of coercion.

With these facts in mind, what can we say about our armed intruder? CCG 31239, or Zhongguo Haijing 31239, was originally built for the PLA Navy, where she served for over 20 years. In the summer of 2015, the vessel was transferred, along with two other ships of her class, to the China Coast Guard – specifically, the agency’s Shanghai “contingent” (zongdui). That CCG 31239 was once a naval vessel does not make her unique. China’s maritime law enforcement fleet has a number of former PLA Navy ships. Several, indeed, have sailed to the Senkakus. But those were all former auxiliary vessels: tug boats, submarine rescue ships, and icebreakers.

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CCG 31239 was a frigate. Therefore, by China Coast Guard standards she is very fast. Moreover, she was built to naval specifications: her designers presumably intended her to survive cannon and even missile fire, as warships must in wartime. China Coast Guard ships built from the keel up are not expected to meet the same standards of survivability. All this means that CCG 31239 is much better prepared to prevail in any game of chicken that might take place in these waters. Moreover, CCG 31239 is no doubt equipped with advanced sensors and communications equipment, certainly superior to the commercial-grade hardware usually installed on other China Coast Guard vessels. CCG 31239 will thus improve maritime domain awareness in the waters where she operates.

Yet CCG 31129’s most noteworthy attribute may be her crew. The vessel is operated by a special class of Chinese coastguardsmen. In fact, they are China’s “original” coastguardsmen. Recall that before the creation of the China Coast Guard in mid-2013, Beijing funded many different maritime law enforcement agencies. Those that mattered most to China’s neighbors were China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). They were the only organizations that regularly sent ships to the Senkakus, Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratlys.

Both CMS and FLE were civilian agencies. Of the two, CMS was much more active along China’s maritime frontier. CMS personnel wore uniforms and had some small arms training. Some were former military. But in the end their part was to look officious, not martial – something like this. In 2008, CMS established three units (zhidui) of “rights protection” personnel who boarded ships headed to trouble spots in order to handle interactions with foreigners. They spoke foreign languages, knew some international law, and regarded themselves as the tip of the spear in China’s maritime disputes.

A third agency, the Border Defense Coast Guard, was of a different breed altogether. It was the maritime component of the Border Defense Force, itself a part of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). They were part of China’s “armed forces.” They had military ranks, like the People’s Liberation Army. As a collective, they were called guanbing, “officers and enlisted.” Unlike CMS and FLE, the Border Defense Coast Guard, or the “old” China Coast Guard, had the power to arrest and charge people for crimes. The service seldom left China’s territorial waters, which was where most such offenses took place. Needless to say, they never sailed to the Senkakus, though their leaders clearly wanted to.

In 2013, Chinese policymakers created the “new” China Coast Guard by combining four agencies, including the three described above. This, like any great reform (even one occurring under a “people’s democratic dictatorship”), was much easier said than done. To date, actual progress has been quite modest. One authoritative source openly acknowledged that the reform is “not where it should be.” The new agency has yet to issue a common service uniform (though people are supposedly working on it). The old division of labor between the different agencies remains largely in place. Former FLE and CMS ships, now painted with four-digit China Coast Guard pennant numbers, continue to conduct blue water “rights protection” patrols. “Old” China Coast Guard forces, their ships identified by five-digit pennant numbers, more or less do what they always did.

By now the reader will recognize the organizational significance of CCG 31239’s recent mission. This ship is owned by a unit of the “old” China Coast Guard. This, then, was the first time a vessel operated by guanbing has ever conducted a patrol to the Senkaku Islands.

What do guanbing patrolling the Senkakus look like in action? Unfortunately, the Chinese press has produced no original reporting on the December 26th incursion. We can, however, easily track down recent stories of guanbing operating in other settings. In December, for instance, forces from the “old” China Coast Guard conducted a major mission to crack down on oil smuggling off the coast of Fujian. CCTV coverage of this operation reveals how much their organizational culture – which is that of a military service – differs from their CMS colleagues. For a primer on the modus operandi of Coast Guard guanbing when confronting foreign mariners, one might review footage of the 2014 defense of CNOOC 981 in disputed waters in the South China Sea, where they vigorously engaged Vietnamese craft attempting to approach the Chinese rig.

What all this portends for future encounters in the East China Sea is, of course, uncertain. Will China Coast Guard guanbing develop a professional rapport with their Japanese counterparts? How will their distinct organizational culture affect their behavior at sea? Do they feel like they have something to prove? Will they attempt to exercise their police powers? These questions must weigh on the minds of commanders within the Japan Coast Guard.

Japanese statesmen, for their part, have these and other questions to ponder. Above all, by deploying to the Senkaku Islands a white-hulled frigate manned by military personnel, what signal is Beijing trying to transmit? For gunboats – as CCG 31239 most assuredly is – are seldom sent without messages.

Ryan Martinson is a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College, where he studies Chinese marine policy.

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