11 September 2014

Power to the Provinces: The Devolution of China’s Maritime Rights Protection

Keep an eye out for more great publications from Ryan Martinson! I can personally attest to his exquisite Chinese language and analysis ability.

This time, Ryan offers timely insights on a vital yet curiously-understudied topic. Check out the table he’s compiled here of the latest additions to China’s rapidly-strengthening and -expanding civil maritime forces!

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

In March 2013, China passed legislation integrating four of its five maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies into the newly-created China Coast Guard, under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) (see also China Brief, March 28, 2013). [1] This decision, long called for by people both in and out of the Chinese government, was intended to improve coordination and reduce redundancies at the central government level. Chinese observers immediately placed it in the context of Beijing’s efforts to improve its ability to enforce China’s maritime claims in Asia. They hoped the formerly independent agencies would come together “to form a fist out of fingers,” creating synergistic effects that would strengthen China’s administrative control over disputed waters.

This centralization, very much a work in progress, has overshadowed another organizational development well worth noting. Until recently, maritime rights protection (MRP)—or using law enforcement as a means of defending and advancing China’s position in its maritime disputes—fell almost entirely within the responsibility of China’s central-level MLE bureaucracies. Since roughly 2010, the MLE forces of China’s eleven coastal provinces and provincial-level cities, formerly content to hug the coast in boats and small ships, have increasingly put to sea in large-displacement cutters and sailed to troubled waters for the stated purpose of confronting “illegal” foreign activities. This development has noteworthy repercussions for both China and the other states of maritime Asia.

For related analysis, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe 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.