China Power

Changes in China’s Coast Guard

An organizational reshuffle and new leadership both point to a more muscular, more assertive CCG.

By Ying Yu Lin for
Changes in China’s Coast Guard

In this photo taken March 29, 2014, a man on a Chinese Coast Guard ship motions for a Philippine government vessel to move away as it tries to enter Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

The China Coast Guard (CCG) announced on January 18 that a CCG task unit led by the No. 2307 patrol vessel conducted a patrol in territorial waters off the Diaoyu Islands – administered by Japan as the Senkaku Islands, but claimed by China as the Diaoyus. It was the third patrol of the kind in the area in 2019. The previous two patrols were conducted within a week on January 5 and 12, respectively, by a task unit led by the No. 2305 patrol vessel.

The CCG has shown a lot of initiative in the new year, which is partly due to its incorporation into the People’s Armed Police Force (PAP) last year and partly associated with its new commander, Wang Zhongcai.

Structural Changes

In 2013, China passed the State Council Institutional Reform and Functional Transformation Plan, which mandated the restructuring of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the incorporation of all maritime law enforcement units into the CCG — known externally as China’s maritime law enforcement body. The CCG was guided by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) prior to that. But with the CCD under SOA control, it was difficult for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the CCG to cooperate and coordinate with each other in protecting China’s maritime rights, sparking another change. In 2018 the CCG was put under the command of the military-administered People’s Armed Police (PAP) in a move to allow China to integrate its maritime management resources.

Do not underestimate the PAP just for its association with police. As one of China’s three main armed forces, the PAP is very similar to the PLA in management. It also has heavy weapons like artillery. While the “Maritime Police Bureau,” the predecessor of the CCG under PAP control, was still in existence, some coast guard vessels were retired PLAN ships that had been partially disarmed. Now that the PLAN has a growing number of new warships, the CCG, back under PAP management, is very likely to take over more ships from the Chinese navy.

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Notably, in addition to the CCG and PLAN, China has another force that it can use to protect its maritime rights: the maritime militia. China’s employment of maritime militia forces is not anything new; there was a precedent back in the Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974. In recent years, China has been sending maritime militia forces, which are actually armed civilian fishing vessels, to disputed sea areas. They are expected to become China’s first-line forces in maritime disputes with other countries. Should any conflict break out in the process, China could take the initiative to gain the upper hand in public opinion warfare by painting its militia members as civilians.

Most militia forces, mainly involved in support missions, used to be governed and commanded by provincial military districts. Provincial military district commanders were largely from the PLA Army (PLAA) in the past. They were in the same grade of corps commander as group army commanders, but they did not have as many promotion opportunities as the latter. Because of close connections with local celebrities and politicians, they focused their attention instead on how to enrich themselves. Provincial military districts, therefore, became a hotbed of corruption.

Following the military reforms launched in 2016, the system of military regions governing provincial military districts was scrapped. Provincial military districts and militia forces are now governed by the National Defense Mobilization Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Militia forces have been likewise redefined and assigned new tasks. They will also be deployed in accordance with the country’s new strategy.

Perhaps out of this concern, Rear Admirals Wang Bin and Wang Shouxin of the navy were appointed in 2018 as commanders of Fujian and Guangdong Military Districts, respectively. These two coastal provinces face the East and South China Seas, where China now maintains an active presence. These two flag officers with maritime experience should be able to manage the maritime militias in the two provinces more effectively than before.

The new measures mentioned above have been put into practice in recent training exercises in waters surrounding China. In May 2018, the China Military Online website reported that a joint task group comprised of military, police, and civilian vessels patrolled waters off the Paracel Islands for the first time. In early August of the same year, Chinese media also revealed that Southern Theater Command Navy was conducting a joint exercise with the CCG, in which a military-militia maritime salvage mechanism and the structure of forces involved in salvage missions were put to the test. These examples tell us that a diversified employment of armed forces may be the main model that China will follow while handling issues relevant to its surrounding waters. The joint task group formed by military, police, and civilian vessels, possibly commanded by the joint operations command center of a theater command, is a threat that countries bordering waters claimed by China must have keenly felt in recent months. We should continue to pay attention to the new structure.

With the assistance of the maritime militia and the PLAN, the CCG is now more of a threat, especially because quite a few of its vessels are retired naval ships, such as the Type 818 patrol vessel, which is a coast guard version of the Type 054A guided-missile frigate of the PLAN, and a number of Type 053H2G frigates not armed with missiles. With its current capabilities, the CCG is a maritime police force quite different from other countries’. What should be noted is that although the CCG has been put under the command of the CMC, it is still known as a law enforcement body. Such an arrangement gives China much more persuasive power in handling “internal problems.”

New Leadership

Toward the end of 2018, quite a lot of high-ranking officers in the PLA and the police force changed positions. From the personnel changes, we can find possible promotion patterns and interpret the changes in terms of the relevant officers’ specialties, their grades, previous positions, functions of their new positions, and future orientations of the new positions.

First of all, in December 2018 Real Admiral Wang Zhongcai of the navy was appointed as the first commander of the CCG, a position left unoccupied for quite some time. The CCG’s predecessor, the Maritime Police Bureau, was subordinate to the MPS. It was a maritime police force enforcing law at sea. In March 2018, as previously explained, the CCG was incorporated into the PAP, and thus ultimately put under the command of the CMC. In the wake of that integration, the question of who would command the CCG became a focus for analysts in the second half of 2018.

The CCG commander position is a corps commander-grade rear admiral/major general position, representing subordination to a naval fleet or theater command. As a law enforcement agency, the CCG was formerly guided by the MPS and its members had to train at the Public Security Maritime Police Academy in Ningbo, Zhejiang province. Because of a policy change, relevant affairs were gradually taken over by officials with PAP background. The academy was also renamed China Maritime Police Academy. Some of its trainees transferred to the Department of Border Defense of China People’s Police University. This indicated a clear division of authority and responsibility between border management and maritime law enforcement.

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As opposed to the leadership of the former MPS-controlled CCG, new CCG Commander Rear Admiral Wang Zhongcai, born in 1963, was from the PLAN. He first served with the naval aviation branch before spending most of his time in the navy commanding surface ships. He served mainly in the East Sea Fleet, starting from 2000. In 2017, Wang was appointed commander of the 26th Escort Task Group of the PLAN to the Gulf of Aden. He was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the middle of that year. From Wang’s service records, we can see that he is one of the officers selected by the PLAN for further cultivation as a future leader. He was admitted into an aviation captain training class in 1987. He also had the experience of interacting with foreign service members in military exchanges and exercises.

However, the selection of Wang as the CCG commander might have more do with his previous work experience in the East Sea Fleet. In 2013, Wang served as commander of Xiamen Water Guard District. He went on to become deputy chief of staff of the East Sea Fleet in 2016. The East Sea Fleet’s area of responsibility covers the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. It is where a maritime conflict is likely to break out between China, Taiwan, and Japan.

Wang taking the helm of the CCG indicates that the military has taken firmer control of maritime forces, making it hard for former influences from the MPS to continue to exist in the restructured CCG. It also indicates that China will maintain a more active presence in the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait in the future.

China may make use of such maritime law enforcement power in a subtle way. Chances are that the CCG will be deployed along ocean shipping routes to and from China. The CCG may become the main force to maintain the security of China’s Maritime Silk Road, a very possible mission for it after its restructuring.

Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Institute of Strategic and International Affairs National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi Taiwan. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University. His research interests include the PLA and cybersecurity.