China’s newly militarized coast guard gives the nation a dangerous new weapon and increases the chance of war in the South China Sea. This was the conclusion of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report to Congress, published last month.
In July, the China Coast Guard came under the control of the People’s Armed Police, which is now fully controlled by the Central Military Commission (CMC). This move “clarified their military role” and “places added importance on the China Coast Guard as an instrument to police, enforce and advance China’s domestic maritime interests.”
Regarding the militarization of the China Coast Guard, the report states:
“The move also established a clear military chain of command from President Xi Jinping and the CMC down to China Coast Guard and People’s Armed Police front line forces. … The primary reason for bringing the China Coast Guard under the People’s Armed Police was likely to enhance the China Coast Guard’s role in advancing China’s maritime territorial claims. Having direct command of the China Coast Guard will enable Chinese military leaders to finely calibrate the force’s role in “gray zone” operations to advance maritime territorial claims while keeping activities below the threshold at which other countries would respond. In other words, bringing the China Coast Guard under the CMC command structure (via the People’s Armed Police) makes the sea force a more effective tool for Chinese coercion campaigns under the guise of “maritime law enforcement” or “maritime rights protection,” but also suggests the China Coast Guard could be viewed by Japan and other claimants in the East and South China seas as a military force rather than civilian law enforcement, due to its unambiguous military command. China, however, maintains that the People’s Armed Police and China Coast Guard still retain law enforcement responsibilities, creating a situation that increases the chance for miscalculation.”
Essentially, the China Coast Guard has become a branch of the Chinese military, with a chain of command directly to Chinese President Xi himself.
The China Coast Guard was first established in 2013 under civilian control to “maintain good order at sea, save lives, and protect the environment.” The majority of national coast guards around the world are under civilian control, but other nations, including France and the United States, have coast guards that operate as branches of their militaries.
One of the biggest concerns that this militarization raises is how other nations should respond to the China Coast Guard in its new role. When it deploys near disputed waters, it could merely be performing a routine maritime protection operation, or it could be acting aggressively as a military force.
As the report to Congress says, a militarized Chinese coast guard acting in “gray zone” areas “increases the chance for miscalculation.”
This is of particular concern to surrounding nations involved in territorial disputes with China. Japan would have once responded to incursions by the China Coast Guard with its own coast guard, but, as a Japanese government source states, “The boundary between police and military activity has grown unclear, making it difficult to respond.” How does a country respond to China Coast Guard ships when it doesn’t know if they are working under military deployment or on a routine maritime patrol?
China claims control over more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and has rapidly militarized it over the last few years. This key shipping route is also claimed by many other countries. As the report makes clear, the use of the China Coast Guard in disputed waters “makes the sea force a more effective tool for Chinese coercion campaigns under the guise of ‘maritime law enforcement’ or ‘maritime rights protection.’”
At the same time, China is expanding the size and military capabilities of its coast guard. Some of its newest ships contain helicopter pads, larger guns, water cannons and reinforced hulls.
This rapid militarization of China’s coast guard will continue to rise to become a formidable military power increasing the chances of a South China Sea war in the future.
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