The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard

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The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard

Plans for China’s still nascent coast guard suggest troubled times ahead in disputed waters.

The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard
Credit: REUTERS/Nguyen Minh

With new “China Coast Guard” ships entering service at regular intervals, it is easy to forget that the China Coast Guard as an organization does not yet exist in any complete sense. Legislation passed in March 2013 to integrate the ranks (duiwu) of four maritime law enforcement agencies into a new China Coast Guard within a re-constituted State Oceanic Administration (SOA) was a pledge of commitment rather than a plan of action. Many, many difficult decisions would have to be made, countless details to be fleshed out. That responsibility would largely fall on Meng Hongwei, the first head of the China Coast Guard, and Liu Cigui, Director of SOA and the China Coast Guard’s first political commissar.

Four months later, the State Council released a redacted version of the SOA reorganization plan (colloquially called the Sanding Fangan), a document adumbrating the planned structure of the two organizations. In some areas the Sanding Fangan was exquisitely precise: The three regional SOA offices and their China Coast Guard units would have exactly 16,296 billets. In many other respects, it was strikingly vague.

The biggest unanswered question was what kind of organization would the China Coast Guard be? The four entities brought together to form the China Coast Guard resided in different departments; they all functioned on completely different organizational structures, their personnel steeped in different cultures and trained for different missions. China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and the China Fisheries Administration were administrative organizations, largely made up of civil servants supported by other full time and contract personnel. Their legal powers were limited to imposing civil penalties. For its part, the Border Defense Coast Guard – that is, the “old” China Coast Guard – comprised the maritime units of the Border Defense Forces, a branch of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). To borrow a phrase from Dennis Blasko, they were “paramilitary police.” They looked and operated like military – indeed had military ranks and were called “active duty” (xianyi) – and yet they had police powers. The fourth force comprised specialized police officers within the General Administration of Customs anti-smuggling division.

Would the new China Coast Guard be an administrative organization filling out its ranks with civil servants, a possibility suggested by its situation within SOA? Or would it instead build a service of soldiers empowered to investigate, detain, and arrest, an equally plausible outcome given the appointment of Meng Hongwei, a senior officer within the Ministry of Public Security? The answer to this question has more than arcane importance. China deploys its maritime law enforcement forces as instruments of sea power, indeed, like a second navy. By patrolling and administering claimed jurisdictional waters, they defend and advance China’s position in its territorial and maritime boundary disputes. To date, the “rights protection” (weiquan) duties have almost entirely been performed by the civil servants, not the soldiers or policemen. Changes to this arrangement could have very real implications for other disputants.

While Chinese policymakers likely aspire to construct a unified maritime law enforcement agency with a single identity, at present no such force exists. The China Coast Guard currently functions like a patchwork of personnel and units from all four “dragons.” Chinese periodicals regularly report stories of frontline units of China Fisheries, Border Defense Coast Guard, Customs, and CMS forces operating in their original roles, again, often with only the most superficial indications of their China Coast Guard affiliation: hull markings and life preservers. Even at higher levels, where some integration is taking place, the presence of multi-colored service uniforms, from martial brown to dowdy blue, betrays the raw hybridity of the existing system.

To be sure, coordination between different services is much improved. In late September a fledging China Coast Guard command organization (called a “Preparatory Group,” or Choubeizu) at SOA’s southern regional office in Guangzhou organized joint operations involving local and national CMS units, Customs police, and Border Defense Coast Guard units stationed in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan. The stated purpose of these two-month missions was to “promote unified law enforcement.” More strikingly, the large mixed flotilla of white hulls protecting HYSY 981 was a product of the organizational efforts of the China Coast Guard Command Center, which brought to bear the combined powers of CMS, the Fisheries Administration, and the “old” Coast Guard. Still, these coordination functions do not reflect a truly “integrated” organizational entity. They are at most evidence of transition. Thus, observers have had no choice but to wait and wonder.

Until now. In early November a China Coast Guard recruitment website went live, an event that was bound to happen eventually, and it has provided fascinating new insights into future plans for the organization. According to the new site, the China Coast Guard intends to hire 700 men and women from the 2015 graduating class (mostly undergraduates), to begin their service in August. Prospective coast guardsmen must meet a whole catalogue of selection criteria. They will have to be both extremely bright and physically fit, be current Party or Communist Youth League members, and possess esoteric knowledge that the service needs: degrees in subjects such as marine engineering, medicine, law, psychology, and foreign languages (English, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Korean). They must fall within very strict age limits. They cannot have studied abroad or practiced a religion. If they meet all of these requirements and many more, and if they can complete a year-long training course, they will be commissioned armed police officers (wujing xianyi jingguan) in the China Coast Guard – second lieutenants, first lieutenants, or, in the case of graduate students, captains.

So the China Coast Guard of the future will be a military organization after all, its ranks filled out by (mostly) men with People’s Armed Police-like discipline, comportment, and training. According to website, these young officers will perform the full range of coast guard functions in any part of the three million square kilometers of China’s claimed jurisdictional waters. During their five-year commitments, they might work in the China Coast Guard headquarters at the SOA complex in Beijing; at one or more of the eleven Coast Guard contingents (zongdui) located in China’s coastal provinces, autonomous regions, and centrally administered cites (Tianjin and Shanghai); or at any one of three of the China Coast Guard’s regional contingents. They’ll stop drug smugglers, quell civil disputes turned violent, uphold fishing moratoria, and yes they will confront – and yes possibly arrest – foreigners operating in disputed waters hundreds of nautical miles away from the Chinese coast. They’ll almost certainly do many of these things from the bridges of armed patrol cutters.

Now, China will not be the first country to deploy warrior policemen to garrison wooden walls at sea. But this fact misses the point. The militarization of Chinese maritime law enforcement must be seen as part of a conscious shift in national strategy that favors policies that improve maritime “rights protection” to the detriment of stable relations with neighboring states (weiwen), a nascent commitment to boost resolve at the cost of restraint. In early 2014, presumably before this decision had been made (and perhaps in a bid to forestall it), former deputy head of CMS – now deputy head of the China Coast Guard – Sun Shuxian warned that choosing to mold the China Coast Guard into a military organization would be unwise, as it would provide fresh fodder for foreign critics and spinners of “China threat theories.” If Sun’s premonitions prove correct, it will not be because Meng Hongwei’s 700 lieutenants make China different from other states, but because they make China different from the country it once was.

Ryan Martinson is research administrator at the China Maritime Studies Institute. He holds a master’s degree from the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a bachelor of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. He previously served as Deputy Director of the China Exchange Initiative.