The China Coast Guard (中国海警局, CCG) is reportedly the world’s largest coast guard. Knowledge of its background and organizational structure is helpful to understanding the intentions which direct its use.
Originally, the maritime security arm of the Public Security Border Troops was a paramilitary organization serving under the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). Then, in March 2013, the Chinese government passed the State Council Institutional Reform and Functional Transformation Plan, which authorized a reshuffle of what was then known as the State Oceanic Administration. Functioning under the aegis of China’s State Council, the SOA was primarily a civilian agency.
From July 2013, all maritime law enforcement units were integrated into the CCG under SOA’s command. However, this move reportedly ended up raising many operational issues. Primary among those was the placement of the CCG under a civilian administration, which caused synchronization challenges with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) during maritime security operations.
Consequently, Beijing announced another major reorganization in March 2018, as part of which the SOA was dissolved, and the CCG’s control shifted from civilian authority to the People’s Armed Police (PAP).
Following China’s 2018 military reforms, the PAP is jointly held by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Central Military Commission. The CCG came directly under China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) from July 2018 onwards. Within a month of this, the PLAN’s Southern Theatre Command conducted a joint exercise with the CCG.
2020 Draft Amendments to the Law
In the latest April 2020 draft amendment to China’s Law, the PAP has added sections about the CCG’s organization and command, extending the troops’ scope of responsibilities to cover, among others, maritime law enforcement and defense combat. The draft has been submitted during the 17th session of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress.
China Coast Guard’s placement under the military chain of command, which, in turn, reports to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, amplifies the politico-military decision making on territorial issues being undertaken by Beijing, be it operational flexibility or diplomatic alternatives while sailing in politically susceptible regions.
Impact of CCG Modernization on Japan
The modernization of the CCG ranges from expansion of its fleet to over approximately 200 vessels, and their weaponization.
Vessels commissioned into the CCG are equipped with close-in auxiliary and anti-aircraft machine guns, a mounted helicopter deck, and hangar facilities that can house medium-lift rotary wing aircraft as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These facilities undoubtedly will enhance CCG’s integration with PLAN assets, including communications and intelligence data sharing while shipping.
CCG is now a quasi-military organization falling under the PLA’s chain of command which will cast a direct shadow on the stability around the Senkaku Islands. While Japan’s non-military Coast Guard fulfills the mission of guarding its territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the visible asymmetry is likely to cause political and military turbulence in the East China Sea. (RELATED STORY: China Rapidly Dwarfing Japan in Naval Power, Would Establish Superiority in a Senkakus Showdown)
China’s New Name Game
In a predictable and perennially recurring policy making pattern, China, having consolidated itself militarily via the CCG reforms, announced on June 23 a political decision of “standardizing names” for 50 submerged geographic features, including undersea canyons, and knolls, in the East China Sea. In order to “regulate the use” of geographical names, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources was quoted as terming them “seabed geographic entities…in the East My Country Sea.”
Chinese analysts have often correlated the border policies adopted by China’s neighboring states, especially those “which have a strong position within the regional power structure...powerful or rapidly developing states...[which] might provoke disputes over territorial issues along borders with China.” Hypotheses such as these are entirely contrary to what Chinese statecraft has been proven to follow and display by means of its revisionist state policy on territorial issues throughout Asia.
China’s announcement of new names for underwater entities in the archipelago was received in Tokyo with this response from Japan’s Defense Minister Taro Kono: “Obviously…trying to change the status quo unilaterally in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, at the Indian border and in Hong Kong. It is easy to make connections between these issues…. Chinese airplanes...armed ships are trying to violate our territorial waters.”
The repeated and mounting visibility of China’s Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, especially incidents of CCG vessels reportedly entering the 12 nautical mile (NM) boundaries, and thereafter moving to the contiguous zone just outside the territorial waters, is an ominous signal. There is rightly a concern that the CCG, now in conjunction with the PLAN, is preparing to employ stealth to China’s naval operations in and around Senkaku Islands.
China’s state-controlled media, including the China Daily and Global Times, have carried numerous reports stating that the expanded enforcement powers of the CCG under the new legislation shall cater for “playing a bigger role in emergencies, crises, including war.”
Have Chinese Intentions Shifted?
It is in light of statements such as these that enhanced Chinese naval activity should be carefully noted. This includes the recent one on June 18, when a Chinese submarine was spotted near Amami Oshima Island, inside the 24 NM contiguous zone boundaries. Moreover, China has maintained a constant presence around the Senkaku Islands since mid-April.
What is more alarming is that the total number of Chinese government vessels and Coast Guard ships entering Japanese waters throughout 2020 has reached a record high.
In the book on Senkaku Islands I authored in 2018, I had argued that holding no verifiable claims, historically, or under international law, China’s sovereignty claims on Senkaku Islands were nothing but an extension of the Communist Party’s territorial annexation overreach. It carries this out by means of placing dubious, unsubstantiated, and unverified claims — be it in the East China Sea, South China Sea, or the land borders with India.
Author: Monika Chansoria
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated.