China Welcomes Its Newest Armed Force: The Coast Guard
There is no consensus on the missions and organizational structure of coast guards around the world. Most countries conceive of them as actors under civilian control deployed to maintain good order at sea, save lives, and protect the environment. There are outliers, of course. The United States Coast Guard, under the Department of Homeland Security, is one of America’s five armed forces and has an explicit defense readiness mission. The French have the Maritime Gendarmerie — a paramilitary police force under the operational control of the chief of staff of the French Navy. These are the exception rather than the rule.
But China appears to have seen merit in the latter model, having recently transferred administrative control of its coast guard from civilian to military authority. The decision may have far-reaching consequences for the command and operations of the China Coast Guard, and is arguably one of the most important reforms to take place since its creation in 2013. Chinese operations in disputed waters in the East and South China Sea — one of the biggest flashpoints for conflict in the world — will now have more direct links with the Chinese military than they have in the past, giving China a freer hand to act assertively against regional states during confrontations. The move also sets China’s coast guard apart from all its counterparts in Asia, with the exception of Vietnam, by ensuring that military, not civilian government organs, in China exert control over one of the most important actors involved in sovereignty disputes in the Asia-Pacific.
To some, the timing of such a move might seem inopportune. After all, China has been assiduously pursuing diplomatic and security initiatives to soften its image in Asia, to include ongoing discussions on a Code of Conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a détente with the Philippines, with which it has significant territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But a closer reading of the history of China’s coast guard reveals a struggle for control between civilian and military command that was never fully settled, setting the stage for the latest military consolidation.
The Seeds of Discontent
In 2009, China unveiled its infamous note verbale to the United Nations with a map featuring nine “dashes” claiming sovereignty over almost the entirety of the South China Sea. Since then, China has struggled to regulate this vast body of water. Its ability to assert administrative control over waters and land features over which it claimed jurisdiction was weak. One reason for this weakness was that China lacked a unified maritime law enforcement force, instead operating several different civilian coast guard-type agencies, each with a narrow mission set and specialized capabilities leading to inefficient and uncoordinated operations.
When the Chinese State Council announced the creation of a China Coast Guard in 2013, folding four of China’s five maritime law enforcement agencies (the so-called “five dragons”) under a civilian organ called the State Oceanic Administration, the debate over whether the coast guard would be a civilian or military-run organization appeared resolved. Putting the service under civilian control seemed like a smart strategy: China could streamline and rely more heavily on a non-military asset to consolidate its claims in the East and South China Sea under the guise of a constabulary police force enforcing Chinese domestic law.
Yet one little phrase in the 2013 announcement planted a seed of inter-agency tension between the State Oceanic Administration and the Ministry of Public Security (a police organ with ties to the Chinese military) that was never fully explained or resolved. In carrying out its duties, the announcement said, the State Oceanic Administration would “receive operational guidance from the Ministry of Public Security.” The Ministry of Public Security’s connection to the maritime realm was that it administered one of the four recently integrated “dragons” — the maritime arm of the Border Defense Force, which is in turn a part of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police. The Ministry of Public Security, in other words, had clear ties with the Chinese military and had power of oversight over certain elements of the China Coast Guard.
So was the China Coast Guard a “paramilitary” organization, then, too? “Absolutely not,” I was told by a senior State Oceanic Administration official during a visit to their headquarters in 2017. “The China Coast Guard is a civilian agency.”
The reality on the water, however, seemed to belie that claim. People’s Armed Police-trained officers and vessels increasingly started to take the lead in “rights protection” patrols in the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, for example. Many of the newly commissioned China Coast Guard vessels appeared to be allocated to the Border Defense Force, including medium-sized offshore patrol vessels mounted with 76mm cannons. (By comparison, the National Security Cutter — a United States Coast Guard cutter of about the same size — is armed with a 57mm cannon.) Recruitment and training seemed to be funneled almost exclusively through the Ministry of Public Security, churning out class after class of People’s Armed Police-enlisted personnel into the China Coast Guard with ranks and uniforms akin to a military service. During meetings with international counterparts, China Coast Guard officers were almost always represented by Ministry of Public Security officers in military attire. Even writings by China Coast Guard officers on Border Defense Force-led operations against Vietnam indicated that “in a real fight, only soldiers have the needed combat power and executive power to execute the mission.” The trend was clear: The Ministry of Public Security, and by extension the People’s Armed Police, seemed to run the show. The State Oceanic Administration appeared to merely provide a civilian cover for increasingly militarized coast guard operations.
It is little surprise, then, that the Chinese government decided last month that responsibility for the China Coast Guard had been formally transferred to the People’s Armed Police. By shifting power from civilian to military administration, the Chinese government put to rest a longstanding tension in governance.
A Newly Empowered People’s Armed Police Runs the Show
To understand why the reform of the coast guard is important, it is necessary to examine recent changes to the organizational structure of the People’s Armed Police, which may have profound implications for how China’s Coast Guard may be run.
Before Jan. 1, 2018, the People’s Armed Police was a paramilitary organization whose primary mission was safeguarding domestic security and maintaining public order under a dual command structure of the Central Military Commission and the Chinese State Council, which administered the People’s Armed Policy through the Ministry of Public Security. On New Year’s Day, with little fanfare, the Chinese government announced major changes to the structure of the People’s Armed Police, transferring command to the Central Military Commission and Chinese Communist Party and removing the State Council’s and Ministry of Public Security’s oversight powers. The move greatly enhanced the “military” component of the “paramilitary” nature of the People’s Armed Police, with the Central Military Commission exerting more direct control over the group’s personnel and operations.
Then on March 21, the government published a follow-on document announcing that the People’s Armed Police was to take full control over the China Coast Guard and divest of most non-military functions, such as Mining, Forestry, Hydropower, Firefighting, and Security Protection. The changes amount to a China Coast Guard placed under a newly reformed, more “militarized” incarnation of a People’s Armed Police, controlled by the Central Military Commission.
Knowns and Unknowns of the Reformed Coast Guard
This change is important for at least four reasons. First, all four of the maritime law enforcement agencies that had been folded into the China Coast Guard in 2013 — the China Marine Surveillance, Border Defense Force, Fisheries Law Enforcement, and Anti-Smuggling Police — will be consolidated further and administered by a newly reformed People’s Armed Police. Whereas the 2013 China Coast Guard mixed civilian and paramilitary personnel, now all coast guard officers will become uniformed active duty People’s Armed Police officers. New recruits will enlist as People’s Armed Police officers and follow basic training procedures similar to those of the People’s Liberation Army. People’s Armed Police officers will be given full authority to board, inspect, seize, and investigate domestic and foreign vessels based on domestic Chinese law. Ships will most likely stay the same color and officers will continue to introduce their all-black uniforms seen on recent China Coast Guard patrols.
Second, the China Coast Guard should now officially be regarded as one of China’s armed forces, capable of executing a variety of law enforcement duties at sea during peacetime with possible wartime functions. The reform will likely enable the China Coast Guard to train and equip itself to conduct combat operations alongside the navy during conflict. This is an important change from the 2013 iteration of the China Coast Guard, which some analysts had argued was sufficiently distinct and separate from the navy.
Third, it will be important to monitor what this means for the China Coast Guard’s behavior on the water. At the very least, it will enjoy more flexibility to act aggressively, if it chooses, in disputed waters in the East and South China Seas. The coast guard will most certainly increase Chinese asymmetric advantages by employing a white hull approach in the South China Sea. Already, there were signs that the 2013 consolidation had enabled more efficient communication links with land-based command centers. The China Coast Guard also permitted more proactive posturing in disputed features in the East China Sea near the Senkakus and in the South China Sea, such as near Scarborough Shoal, Luconia Shoals, Thitu Island, and in the waters off Natuna Island near Indonesia.
The reform will almost certainly free up to the China Coast Guard to train more extensively and share operational intelligence with its naval counterpart, as it already has begun to do. The coast guard may even expand its playbook to include wartime support for the navy, such as island seizures, blockades, or anti-submarine warfare and mine-laying. In this sense, the reform puts the China Coast Guard closer to the authorities of the United States Coast Guard, which is the only U.S. military service with law enforcement authorities that also must maintain a certain level of readiness to support combat missions if called upon. Indeed, China is very likely to adopt the model of the United States Coast Guard, perhaps with one important distinction — it will most likely fashion itself as a law enforcement agency first, with a tacit, unspoken secondary role supporting the navy.
Finally, the China Coast Guard, like all coast guards, has non-coercive functions to serve as well. These include the basic management of China’s marine environment such as safety at sea, environmental disaster mitigation, inspecting marine licenses, and measuring fish catch. Just because the China Coast Guard is now under the People’s Armed Police does not mean it can afford to neglect these important duties. Therefore, the reform will not solve the fundamental identity crisis plaguing the China Coast Guard — whether to focus its training and sea days fulfilling the “blunt defender of sovereignty” mission of repelling rival claimants from disputed waters, or fulfilling a less coercive mission of maritime management.
Perceptions matter just as much as substance in ongoing territorial disputes. That is why this move will have major symbolic implications for China’s presence in disputed waters, which the country can longer claim is purely civilian in nature. This may undermine China’s argument that regional states with which it has maritime disputes have nothing to fear from the Chinese presence in the East and South China Sea. Had the China Coast Guard not started out civilian, and later transitioned to a military organization, these regional concerns might be less pronounced. Now, however, states will rightly question how militarized the China Coast Guard intends to become. Finally, states may assume based on the shift in command structure that the China Coast Guard now has enhanced authority to use kinetic means to defend itself during crises (even if this is not the case), raising concerns over escalation. As a result, China will have a much more difficult time convincing states with which it has territorial disputes that it seeks a non-militarized, peaceful and stable environment in the East and South China Sea.
Some may argue that the reform will improve what was once an unresolved command and control structure, in fact reducing uncoordinated actions that could lead to unintended escalation. That may well be true. However, the question remains: To what end is China seeking to streamline operations? The government has shown a clear strategy of employing coast guard assets in lieu of a navy to systematically push other claimants from disputed waters and prevent them from legitimately exploiting their natural resources, contrary to international law. This latest reform will only expand the options available for the China Coast Guard in the disputed waters, including giving the service more authority to act decisively. In so doing, the move will reinforce perceptions in the region that China’s charm offensive in Southeast Asia is increasingly backed up by potent hard power instruments to coerce countries who choose to test Beijing’s resolve.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the largest gun on any U.S. Coast Guard Cutter is 57 mm.
Lyle J. Morris is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Image: Xinhua/Zhang Guojun