11 March 2013

New Fleet on the Block: China’s Coast Guard Comes Together

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “New Fleet on the Block: China’s Coast Guard Comes Together,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 11 March 2013.


In a move with significant implications for territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, the Chinese government announced on Sunday that it plans to centralize bureaucratic control over its maritime law enforcement agencies by consolidating them under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and its parent ministry, the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.

Many analysts—ourselves included—focus heavily on China’s rapidly-developing navy. Yet some of the most profound effects on China’s near-term operations in its maritime neighborhood are likely to emerge from ongoing reforms that put China on a path to creating Asia’s largest coast guard. While further behind in high-end capabilities, China’s civil maritime forces combined currently have nearly as many large-displacement cutters and patrol vessels as Japan’s Coast Guard, the region’s largest and most capable.

In remarks delivered in conjunction with the National People’s Congress on Sunday, State councilor Ma Kai  said that consolidation was needed to remedy the fact that the country’s five separate maritime law enforcement bodies were insufficient to fulfill China’s law enforcement needs, protect its sovereignty, and safeguard its maritime rights and interests, including a maritime economy that could account for 10% of national economic output by 2015 (in Chinese).

For years, China’s five largest civil maritime agencies were controlled by different parent organizations, earning them the moniker “five dragons contending for the sea.” Four dragons are now slated for consolidation under the SOA:

  1. China Marine Surveillance (CMS) [already under SOA]
  2. Border Control Department (BCD) [formerly under the Ministry of Public Security]
  3. Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) [formerly under the Ministry of Agriculture]
  4. General Administration of Customs [under the State Council]

The fifth dragon, the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA), under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transport, is not generally referenced in official statements describing the merger.

China’s ongoing civil maritime command-and-control reforms have been mentioned intermittently for years, based in part on close study of measures China’s neighbors have taken to improve their own coast guard capabilities. One such study (pdf), published in 2007 by researchers at the Ningbo Maritime Police Academy, noted how South Korea successfully unified different maritime law enforcement agencies into a single, powerful national coast guard. While the jury remains out the ultimate impact of China’s fledgling measures, the years of thought and operational experience behind today’s ongoing reforms suggest that they have strong political support and enjoy a good chance of succeeding in materially enhancing China’s maritime law enforcement capabilities.

Reform Objectives

The broad aim of the reform is to enable Chinese maritime law enforcement capabilities to be used in a more controlled manner while also retaining their effectiveness as an instrument of national power. Stronger central control will help Beijing better ensure that the new unified Coast Guard promotes national objectives while restraining individual commanders from taking rash actions that could trigger unintended escalation of maritime conflicts.

Japan has long recognized the power of Coast Guard forces to protect national interests in an effective manner that arouses less opposition and risk of escalation than use of naval warships. Indeed, local media recently reported that former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had ordered the country’s Maritime Self-Defense Force to remain out of sight over the horizon during Chinese forays into the vicinity of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, instead letting the Japanese Coast Guard play the front-line role, after his administration nationalized the islands in September.

Now China is moving to further diversify its options by creating a similarly versatile Coast Guard that may even surpass Japan’s numerically within the next few years. China’s civil maritime sector is in the midst of a large shipbuilding spree that could add 36 modern cutters and patrol ships over the next five years (in Chinese) and make China’s Coast Guard the region’s largest by at least some metrics. Civil maritime vessels require mechanical reliability and the ability to operate at sea and support their crew effectively for sufficient periods, but tend to be simpler, cheaper and quicker to build than top-end warships. These factors allow China’s capable shipyards to ramp up numbers rapidly if desired.

Japanese defense analysts are already fretting over the possibility that in two to three years, Chinese Coast Guard forces could become able to deploy more ships to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands area than the Japan Coast Guard will be able to handle. As of 1 April 2012, the Japan Coast Guard had a total of 448 vessels and 73 aircraft (pdf). While 51 of the Japan Coast Guard’s cutters are in the 1,000-ton class, China’s civil maritime forces already have 47 such vessels and are expected to add at least 20 by 2015 .

Key Challenges

Among the biggest unknowns in the wake of Sunday’s announcement is whether a top level decree can overcome entrenched constituencies within each of the five maritime law enforcement agencies and break enough “rice bowls” to ensure their effective integration. And even if the reforms are successful, what the consolidated Coast Guard will do to address remaining deficiencies in equipment and other capabilities remains an important question.

Strategic Implications

Civil maritime integration affirms that Beijing believes regional maritime disputes will not be resolved anytime soon, but that it wants to have more coordinated policies and operations among its maritime law enforcement agencies. Bureaucratic unification may help to ameliorate risks previously imposed by competing law enforcement agencies being involved in maritime encounters and disputes. Japanese sources have argued that in the past, China’s disparate maritime law organizations and the lack of centralized control over their operations greatly complicated the East China Sea security situation. That hasn’t always been the case. On March 8, 2009, PLAN, CMS, FLEC and other Chinese-government controlled vessels were able to coordinate closely and effectively  in harassing an unarmed U.S. government survey ship in international waters far from China’s coast (pdf). Yet, as Nan Li documents in his landmark study on Chinese civil-military relations (pdf), Beijing’s real-time crisis decision-making and –management still faces formidable challenges. While the current reforms promise to help address this serious problem, it remains to be seen exactly how SOA will merge its new “dragons’” organizational structures and operations.

Building more coherent civilian maritime law enforcement capacity serves China’s core strategic interests.  Outside of China’s immediate neighborhood in the East and South China Seas, many of the security threats it faces come from non-traditional sources such as piracy. A more unified command structure also stands to significantly enhance Chinese maritime law enforcement’s operational effectiveness. For example, in the past, China MSA’s Shanghai Rescue Coordination Center has overseen a vessel-tracking systems that displayed MSA vessels’ locations in real time, but were unable to show where vessels from the other four “dragons” were (pdf). High-level oversight and command unification can help China overcome that and other inefficiencies.

A unified Chinese Coast Guard may expand its portfolio operationally and geographically over time. It also enhances Beijing’s ability to respond with white hulls instead of gray hulls, thereby engaging in moderated messaging and actions, which Lyle Goldstein, a leading expert on the subject, terms “non-military escalation.” Traditionally, among Chinese law enforcement vessels, only BCD’s have been armed with substantial deck guns. The fact that Coast Guards can exert influence without being viewed with the alarm triggered by actual naval deployments make them an extremely useful tool for global maritime powers to safeguard interests in near and distant waters alike. Here it bears noting that the U.S. Coast Guard operates globally. As China’s global maritime interests continue expanding and China begins to see its laws as applying to activities beyond Chinese borders, the leaders of a new, unified maritime law enforcement body may well lobby for a broader set of missions than they currently perform.

Finally, a more unified Chinese Coast Guard command structure facilitates cooperation with other countries.  China and other regional and global maritime powers such as Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and India share common interests in managing fisheries and addressing threats to key sea lanes and ports from piracy, terrorism and other disruptive non-traditional activities. In this respect, having a centralized point of contact in China could foster closer cooperation on areas of mutual interest, provided that its leadership is vested with sufficient political authority to overcome internal opposition from competing entities and interests.

As challenges of bureaucratic unification and coordination are surmounted, China’s new fleet on the block will afford significant operational possibilities for China. Instead of “contending for the seas” among a motley collection of small dragons, a bigger dragon can handle their previous responsibilities more effectively. Beyond its continuing responsibilities within Chinese territorial waters, it may instead contend more intensively with the coast guards and navies of neighboring countries—albeit in a fashion far less escalatory than if China dispatched naval ships. The direction that China’s new Coast Guard takes, the size to which it grows, and the roles it assumes will offer significant indications concerning Beijing’s plans for the seas off its coast.