05 December 2014

The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard

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

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

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. … The three regional SOA offices and their China Coast Guard units would have exactly 16,296 billets. …

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. …

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.