01 April 2015

China’s Second Navy

Want to understand China’s Coast Guard? Given its emergence as China’s Second Navy in the Near Seas—and the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet—you should. And there’s simply no better published source of understanding in English today than Ryan Martinson’s recent series of articles on the subject. Here’s the latest and greatest—a pithy, powerful piece not to be missed!

Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141.4 (April 2015).

While the world has been busy watching China’s blue-water naval buildup, the People’s Republic has been steadily exploiting maritime law enforcement—and its coast guard—as an instrument of statecraft.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in the midst of a major, much-publicized augmentation of its maritime law-enforcement forces. The familiar lamentations among Chinese navalists—our law-enforcement ships are small and few; we can’t compare with other great powers—have been replaced by quiet recognition that China now possesses the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet. Were this simply an effort to enhance the PRC’s ability to enforce uncontroversial domestic law in uncontested waters, few would notice. But outside observers have seen a noteworthy pattern in China’s behavior: It uses the law-enforcement cutter as an instrument of foreign policy.

Despite frequent comment on Chinese expansion in maritime East Asia, there is a shocking dearth of scholarship on this topic. Foreign observers generally agree that by deploying unarmed coast guard ships—white hulls—to pursue interests, China is able to leverage its growing power while avoiding international opprobrium detrimental to other foreign-policy goals. However, there is little systematic discussion of what roles China’s maritime law-enforcement forces perform in their capacity as instruments of policy. This article will take a first step toward filling this gap.

The Weiquan Fleet

The PRC funds at least five agencies with responsibility for enforcing law along the coasts and in the waters over which it claims jurisdiction. Each of these agencies operates both boats and ships, which, when added up, number in the thousands. Most of these vessels, however, have no bearing on the current discussion. Indeed, the vast majority of China’s maritime law-enforcement forces serve traditional coast guard functions: rescuing stricken mariners, enforcing fishing regulations, fining polluters, deterring smugglers, and ensuring civilian vessels are up to code. For most of these duties, law-enforcement personnel operate small craft that do not leave the country’s 12–nautical mile territorial sea. …


Ryan D. Martinson, “Jinglue Haiyang: The Naval Implications of Xi Jinping’s New Strategic Concept,” Jamestown China Brief (9 January 2015).

Ryan D. Martinson, “Chinese Maritime Activism: Strategy Or Vagary?The Diplomat, 18 December 2014.

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, 21 November 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Here Comes China’s Great White Fleet,” The National Interest, 1 October 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Power to the Provinces: The Devolution of China’s Maritime Rights Protection,” Jamestown China Brief 14.17 (10 September 2014).