China’s top legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, decided last month to transfer administration of the country’s Coast Guard from the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), a civilian authority, to the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF), which falls under the command of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC). The move, which took effect July 1st, is expected to allow China’s Coast Guard, which has over 200 vessels and more than 16,000 service members, to enhance its maritime emergency and law enforcement capabilities through closer coordination and more frequent training exercises with the PLA Navy, thereby allowing it to play a stronger role in combating maritime crimes, such as smuggling and piracy, and illegal activities that contribute to environmental degradation. It is also expected to help the Coast Guard to more effectively conduct search and rescue operations.
Some observers fear the transfer presages a program of fully arming China’s Coast Guard vessels, which, for the most part, are currently armed only with water canons but in future could be fitted with small-caliber canons and heavy machine guns.
Others say that an increasing militarization of China’s Coast Guard could allow it to help enforce the country’s contentious territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, which would heighten tensions between China and neighboring countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
In its 2016 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense said that “the enlargement and modernization of the China Coast Guard…will improve China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims.” The report also predicts that over “the next decade, a new force of [Chinese] 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.”
In recent years, the Philippines has alleged that China’s Coast Guard has over-zealously intercepted Philippine fishing boats and confiscated their catches near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Tensions increased between China and Japan in 2016 when China briefly sent four of its Coast Guard ships into territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both China and Japan.
During a news conference on June 26th, Japan’s Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera, said that Japan “will maintain a level-headed response” to China’s latest move to put its Coast Guard under military command, but he noted that his country is nonetheless “determined to steadfastly defend [its] landmass, territorial waters and airspace.”