China Coast Guard heads to front line to enforce Beijing’s South China Sea claims


The service’s role and integration with the military has been strengthened in the last year, leaving the navy to set sights on deeper waters

China is expected to use its coastguard fleet to shore up its paramilitary presence in the disputed South China Sea, using the personnel to strengthen law enforcement and even deter activities by other claimants, analysts said.

China has bolstered the coastguard’s role in the last year, bringing it under the control of the Central Military Commission and ordering it to be better prepared for trouble in the contested waters.

Addressing coastguard officers over the Lunar New Year, CMC vice-chairman Xu Qiliang said all personnel should be well prepared for different situations in the East China Sea – where China has competing claims with Japan – and the South China Sea.

Xu also urged them to “staunchly safeguard” China’s maritime rights and interests.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the China Coast Guard was “playing a key role in China’s unsettled sovereignty disputes by patrolling disputed waters to enforce China’s maritime claims”.

“[This] frees up the [People’s Liberation Army] Navy for power projection farther and farther from Chinese shores,” Ni said.

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Xu’s rallying cry to the coastguard comes after a major restructure of the service last year that saw the State Oceanic Administration, which previously oversaw the coastguard with the Ministry of Public Security, merged with the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The coastguard then became part of the People’s Armed Police, which is directly under the CMC. The move was meant to improve the military’s coordination with maritime law enforcement, which was previously scattered across various agencies.

China has long wanted its coastguard fleet to be at the front line of enforcement in the troubled waters, leaving the navy to play a backup role.

But under the previous structure, the oceanic administration had no authority over the military, hampering coordination between the coastguard and navy.

The restructure ushered in a period of integration between the coastguard and navy, including a joint exercise between the Southern Theatre Command and the coastguard in August.

The navy has also transferred some of its officers to the coastguard, including Rear Admiral Wang Zhongcai, who became the coastguard’s commander in December. Wang previously took part in the navy’s mission in the Gulf of Aden, and was deputy chief of staff of the East Sea Fleet that was responsible for Taiwan, and the East China Sea.