Over the past several years, China has revamped its maritime strategy to reflect its shifting national priorities. At the 18th National Party Congress in 2012, then-President Hu Jintao called for China to become a “maritime power” capable of safeguarding its maritime rights and interests. This position was reinforced in a 2015 defense white paper that declared “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.”
The China Coast Guard (CCG) is critical to securing its maritime interests. According to a 2016 Department of Defense report “the enlargement and modernization of the China Coast Guard . . . will improve China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims.” The report also notes that in “the next decade, a new force of civilian law enforcement ships will afford China the capability to patrol more robustly its claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”
Our data show that of the 46 major incidents identified in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2016, at least one CCG (or other Chinese maritime law enforcement) vessel was involved in 72 percent of incidents. Four additional incidents involved a Chinese naval vessel acting in a maritime law enforcement capacity, raising that number to 80 percent.
|The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) administers the China Coast Guard. The SOA is “responsible for formulating the systems and measures to enforce laws to protect marine rights,” and charged with the “development and utilization of uninhabited islands.” The SOA also “organizes and formulates the regulations for construction and use of . . . artificial islands.” The Ministry of Public Security provides operational guidance to the CCG.|
|The China Coast Guard was established in 2013. Prior to 2013, China relied on at least five major maritime administrative agencies to enforce maritime law. Bureaucratic competition and political infighting between these “Five Dragons” inhibited China from pursuing a comprehensive maritime law enforcement strategy.|
|In the move to establish a unified coast guard, four of these agencies were rolled into the CCG. Key among these is the CMS, a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency that has been referred to as China’s “second navy.” The only “dragon” not rolled into the coast guard was the Maritime Safety Administration, which is part of the Ministry of Transport.|
Budget and Tonnage
The establishment of a unified coast guard has corresponded with a substantial increase in Chinese government spending. Estimates from a forthcoming article in the Naval War College Review show that China has averaged an annual coast guard budget of $1.74 billion over the past five years. By comparison, Japan is estimated to have spent $1.5 billion per year while the average yearly budget of Vietnam and the Philippines is between $100 million and $200 million over the same period. At present, China possesses the world’s largest coast guard fleet. The Office of Naval Intelligence notes that China’s coast guard has some 205 vessels, including 95 vessels that displace over 1000 tons.
The capabilities of CCG vessels are also expanding. China has built two 12,000 ton cutters, the Haijing 2901 and Haijing 3901, which were first put to sea in May 2015 and January 2016 respectively. These larger ships are able to remain on station longer than their smaller counterparts and are more capable of intimidating and harassing the ships of other states. Former Chinese naval vessels also serve as part of the CCG fleet. Although these vessels are painted white to mark their change in service and their armaments are modified for maritime law enforcement duties, these vessels provide an advantage over China’s neighbors.
East China Sea
Importantly, the use of CCG vessels to ensure China’s maritime interests is not isolated to the South China Sea. In the East China Sea, China conducts regular patrols with both CCG ships and other law enforcement vessels in the territorial sea and contiguous zone around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Conflicting territorial claims between China and Japan has resulted in a number of incidents. The most prominent incident occurred on September 7, 2010 when a collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats resulted in the arrest of the Chinese fishing captain. The incident triggered a major diplomatic row between China and Japan.
According to the Japan Coast Guard, Chinese incursions into contested waters in the East China Sea have trended upwards since 2010 and have become routine since September 2012, following the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from a private Japanese citizen.
In recent years, Chinese vessels entering the territorial sea and the contiguous zone are increasingly armed. The first reported instance of an armed CCG ship entering the area occurred in December 2015, when the Haijing 31239, a former navy vessel armed with four 37-millimeter autocannons, was sighted on the 22nd within the contiguous zone. Four days later, it entered the territorial waters around the islands.
From August 5 to August 9, 2016, between 200 and 300 fishing vessels and 16 CCG vessels, at least seven of which were armed, were reported to be in the area around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The large numbers of Chinese fishing vessels entering the waters was not unusual for peak fishing season, but their accompaniment by CCG ships was unprecedented. In response, Japan has lodged over 30 protests with the Chinese government. At present, the situation has not returned to the status quo ante. Although China routinely sends vessels into the area, the current number of CCG vessels around the islands remains elevated.
Interested in learning more about who is claiming what in Asia? The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS has developed an interactive map that explores the web of overlapping maritime claims in the region.