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The Promise and Peril of China’s New Coast Guard

The consolidation of China’s coast guard is widely viewed as positive. Is it really?

By Bonnie Glaser and Brittany Billingsley for
The Promise and Peril of China’s New Coast Guard
Credit: REUTERS/11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters-Japan Coast Guard/Handout

Four ships from the newly established China Coast Guard (CCG) were deployed in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on July 24, as reported by Kyodo News and Xinhua. The ships have also been sighted in the area around Mischief Reef according to a confidential Philippine government report. While Chinese government vessels have consistently entered both seas over the past year, this marked the first time ships did so under the restructured State Oceanic Administration (SOA).

On June 9, the State Council issued new guidelines and regulations on the structure and functions of the SOA. These new regulations were part of a sweeping institutional reform package released by the State Council following the 18th Party Congress in March. They provide further detail on the streamlining of China’s sprawling maritime law enforcement entities: the SOA, under the Land and Resources Ministry; the CCG, under the Public Security Ministry; the Transport Ministry’s Maritime Safety Administration (MSA); Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) under the Ministry of Agriculture; and the General Administration of Customs (GAC).

According to the plan, the unified coast guard will be split among three regional operation branches (North, East, and South China Seas), with a total of 11 coast guard commands and their flotillas. SOA Headquarters itself would be staffed by 372 people, led by one director; four deputy directors; and one additional deputy director concurrently serving as China Coast Guard Bureau director.

Several responsibilities in the area of maritime security have been strengthened or reallocated to SOA, including maritime rights protection, unification and standardization of planning and activities, drafting regulations on maritime area usage, and maritime law enforcement efforts. The new regulations also provide details on the division of labor between SOA and other ministries, such as the Ministries of Land and Resources, Agriculture, Transport, and Environmental Protection and the General Administration of Customs. Guidance regarding SOA’s division of labor with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) was comparatively muted, however, stating only that the CCG under SOA would conduct “maritime rights protection and law enforcement” and would receive “operational guidance” from MPS.

A unified coast guard command is expected to enhance coordination on law enforcement procedures in a multitude of areas that had previously been fragmented and fraught with redundancy, and it should increase the efficacy of policy implementation across these areas. However, the extent of this “unification” is yet to be fully fleshed out, and questions of personnel training, fleet build up, jurisdiction, and other such details are yet to be resolved.

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For instance, the question of whether all ships operating under the CCG will be armed is one that many regional experts are watching closely. Prior to the restructure, most vessels across the five agencies were unarmed, with a few exceptions (e.g. old CCG and GAC anti-smuggling units). While there were no visible weapons on the ships that patrolled around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands last week, it cannot be ruled out that CCG vessels will be armed in the future (and those vessels which are already armed are likely to remain so).

This is especially the case if China opts to model its coast guard after other regional ones, such as Japan and the United States, which are equipped with small arms. Chinese experts have speculated that the new ships are likely to be similarly equipped with “light weapons” such as water cannons and “light machine guns.” Other sources report that the ships could boast more advanced communication systems and automatic deck guns as well.

Where the CCG will be acquiring its vessels from is another area of uncertainty. The CCG will reportedly incorporate vessels from the five agencies as well as new and repurposed vessels. The new CCG will probably continue the practice of refitting decommissioned PLA Navy or commercial ships, including older frigates and corvettes as well as supply and service ships (such as the submarine rescue vessel given to Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) in the South China Sea).

There is also uncertainty surrounding the numbers of ships, aircraft and personnel under its command. A 2010 U.S. Naval War College report estimated that the five agencies had about 40,000 people under their command. The CCG (then still under the Ministry of Public Security) alone accounted for about 10,000 staff and 480 ships (though admittedly the vast majority were coastal patrol vessels, and small cutters and boats). If SOA opts to incorporate personnel and hardware from the other agencies, the new CCG will be quite the formidable force, especially when compared to other regional coast guards, such as Japan which boasts only 446 vessels, 73 aircraft, and 12,808 staff members. However, according to the new State Council regulations, the CCG is to be staffed by only 16,296 people. This drawdown of personnel would significantly limit the number of vessels or aircraft in operation and bring the CCG closer in alignment to other coast guards in the region.

This raises the additional question of whether the previous agencies will continue operations. The SOA regulations released in June suggest that the new CCG will be responsible for law enforcement activity in addition to maritime rights protection, giving the various ministries a more administrative role. But whether the personnel of the former maritime law enforcement agencies like FLEC and MSA will be transferred to new roles within their home ministries or incorporated into the CCG is as yet unclear. For instance, due to SOA’s relationship with MPS, all former China Maritime Surveillance vessels will be part of the new CG, but the Maritime Safety Administration fleet will not be included at this time. Also for the time being, only the national elements of the four institutions are being integrated – the regional offices remain separate. There are images circulating online of vessels from these old organizations being repainted in the new CCG scheme – five stripes – signifying the new CCG is different from but incorporates the other institutions.

The consolidation has been widely viewed as a positive move both domestically and abroad. There is hope among foreign observers that the move could reduce regional tensions because the combined Chinese maritime law enforcement bodies which had previously been competing for funding and resources will have a consistent, single chain of command under the MPS. This can make coast guard activity more predictable when scenarios arise that have the potential for escalation. U.S. Air Force General Herb Carlisle has noted that command and control of Chinese maritime security operations already appears to be improving.

The consolidation could also heighten tensions, however. A highly coordinated maritime law enforcement agency will be better equipped to defend China’s territorial claims and sovereignty, increasing the chances of fatalities if there are clashes between coast guards. It also offers more opportunities to intimidate weaker neighbors, although this depends on the capabilities of the opposing coast guard. Chinese forays into disputed territories are unlikely to diminish, and this paired with more effective coordination will continue to cause frustration for China’s neighbors. The possibility that Chinese patrols deployed to disputed regions would now all be armed could also inadvertently result in more confrontations with opposing coast guards, as neither side would necessarily “out-gun” the other. A complicating factor is how the CCG and other coast guards will respond to the continued efforts by nationalist demonstrators to land on disputed islands. A Hong Kong activist organization has announced plans to land on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands on August 15, marking the one-year anniversary of a similar trip that resulted in several arrests by the Japanese coast guard in 2012. Protestors present an additional risk because efforts to divert or detain them and their vessels can lead to greater chances of incidents occurring.

The impact that these changes to China’s coast guard will have on regional maritime security dynamics is yet to be seen. The restructure presents significant benefits for both China (efficiency) and others (predictability). However, regional powers – especially those with territorial disputes with China – should not necessarily anticipate a “weaker” coast guard simply based on personnel and ship numbers.  Rather, the restructured CCG yields opportunities for China to be better prepared to defend its claims than it has been in the past. The cumulative effect on maritime security, and China’s interaction with regional coast guards, will be determined in part by how the CCG responds to extenuating circumstances, and how those actions are perceived abroad.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC and senior associate for the Pacific Forum CSIS. Brittany Billingsley is a research associate and program coordinator in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. 

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