The Chinese government announced in March 2013 its plan to centralize bureaucratic control over its maritime law enforcement agencies. Its decision to combine its separate maritime law enforcement bodies into an integrated one under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), a part of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (MLR). China’s maritime law enforcement reform, implemented after years of debate on the country’s maritime enforcement capacity, has met with different responses within the country and from the region.

Suspicion within China arises from obstacles to bureaucratic reconciliation among formerly-separate agencies. There are also bifurcated reactions from the neighboring countries that have disputes with China on territorial and maritime jurisdiction. Some welcome this move because they believe that a united civilian maritime law enforcement agency will reduce the risk or conflict at sea. Others question whether a unified agency will allow China to be more assertive in pursuing its interests in the territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Sea.

Organization Before the Reform:



Organization After the Reform:


Four agencies are now slated for consolidation under the SOA: China Marine Surveillance (CMS, already under the SOA), Maritime Border Police (formerly under the Ministry of Public Security), the Fishing Regulation Administration (FRA, formerly under the Ministry of Agriculture) and General Administration of Customs (under the State Council). The fifth dragon, the Maritime Safety Administration, under the Ministry of Transport, in charge of navigational safety and search and rescue missions, is not listed in official statements on the merger. Sources in China suggest that the MSA strongly opposed the merger, making a strong case that it is also involved in supervising navigation in the numerous rivers in China. This objection aside, China sees the merger as crucial because its vessels are increasingly on the front lines of clashes between China and other states in the East and the South China Sea. The reform aims at enhancing China’s maritime law enforcement capacities in a more controlled and coordinated manner. Meanwhile, the reform could significantly improve response time, reduce redundancy, strengthen communication, and bolster overall command and control mechanisms. Two objectives may be achieved through the merger: First, a unified force will better be able to pursue national objectives; second, it will reduce the chance that uncoordinated actions by separate commanders trigger unintended escalation and conflict at sea.

It is unclear, however, how fast these reform measures will be implemented and there are several organizational uncertainties. First, it appears that the new agency will be under the dual leadership of the SOA and Ministry of Public Security, which has traditionally exercised supervision of China’s border control forces. How this dual leadership will affect the operation of the new entity remains to be seen. Second, the restructure plan also calls for the establishment of a high-level consultation and coordinating body on maritime operations, named State Ocean Commission ( SOC). The composition and functions of SOC are still unclear. Whether this Commission will conflict or overlap with the Small Leadership Group is also an open question. Third, perhaps more importantly for the region, it is unclear whether the new agency will be equipped with heavy arms. The MBP, under the Ministry of Public Security, has always been armed. It is unclear whether all the boats of the new China maritime law enforcement agency will be armed. Fourth, it is also hard to predict whether the reform will be implemented without organizational obstacles from the former five dragons.

This new, integrated agency highlights the increasing importance of China’s Coast Guard, as distinct from its Navy. Coast guards and navies are mandated with different responsibilities. While navies have the mandate for the defence of a country, and its interests offshore, coast guards have the civilian mandate of marine safety and security. In some countries, the coast guard has the full spectrum of responsibilities which include marine safety and homeland security; others use mainly multi-tasking of their marine services through cooperation and coordination, but with strong government strategic direction and priorities. Despite the cooperating and coordinating nature between coast guards and navies, there is a fundamental cut of different missions between them. In maritime areas beyond national jurisdiction, such as high seas, only navies can legitimately exercise authority as flag states. In maritime areas within a national jurisdiction, such as a territorial sea, contiguous zone, or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), both navies and coast guards can exercise their function, with different missions. What is distinct is the different impact in terms of pursuing national maritime interest. Naval involvement in an incident or crisis will raise concerns about the “use of force” or be perceived as escalatory, while coast guard or other civil maritime enforcement agencies will mitigate these concerns.

The important role that China’s civilian maritime agencies play has been demonstrated in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, through its engagements with the Philippines and Japan. During the Scarborough Shoals incident of 2012, observers will recall that China engaged the Philippines with two unarmed CMS vessels, despite the fact that the Philippines vessel was the Gregorio del Pilar, a naval warship. Some have charged that China’s strategy involves keeping its naval vessels “lurking in the background,” but it is important to remember that they were not introduced in this case.  Since 2012, China’s law enforcement vessels have also taken the lead in patrolling the contiguous zone and territorial waters of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the tempo of patrols has increased by both sides. There has also been an increased presence by military vessels from both China and Japan, but China’s CMS and FRA vessels take the lead in asserting its rights in the area.

There are at least three possible strategic and security implication derived from the ongoing structural reform of China’s maritime law enforcement. First, a united agency, now officially called China’s Coast Guard, reflects the decision of China’s leadership to enhance its maritime law enforcement capability and to transform it into a maritime power. China seems to believe that a civilian enforcement force serves to mitigate the conflict at sea and avoid direct military confrontation with other disputant states in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The second major implication is that a stronger Chinese enforcement entity serves to promote China’s rapidly growing “soft power” both in the Asia-Pacific and around the globe. The third implication is the relationship between PLA Navy and the new China Coast Guard. The PLA Navy formerly had the capacity of only an elaborate coast guard and now emphasizes technology-intensive warfare. It shows interest in issues that are traditionally coast guards’ responsibility, including search and rescue, environmental protection, and piracy.

Coast guards appear to be part of the broader regional arms race. The Philippines Coast Guards has been expanding its capabilities for the last nine years. Japan has also built up the JCG, as a quasi-military force, and increased cooperation between military and civilian institutions. After China stepped up regular patrols of waters around the Diaoyu Islands following the September 2012 purchase, Japan increases the number of JCG vessels patrolling the islands from three to 30. Japanese politicians agree that the JCG needs to be “reinforced” fearing that its capability will be “overtaken by the Chinese”. On  October 26, 2012, the JCG received from government economic stimulus plan the largest ever disbursement of special funds, and the first specifically for territorial water patrol. This budget increases by 37 per cent for the financial year 2013 from the previous year. A dedicated “Senkaku Island team” was created aiming deploying ten new patrol boats to the area in the next three years.

In the East China Sea and the South China Sea, it is clear that none of the claimant states will compromise their national interest and find an easy solution to the existing territorial and maritime disputes. The growing possibility of clashes at sea is troubling, and it is urgent for all countries to make their domestic legislation on maritime law enforcement transparent and to increase the collective knowledge of each other’s domestic laws and regulations. China’s new unified Coast Guard and those of others in the region should be forces for peace, not triggers of conflict.

About Nong Hong

Dr. Nong HONG heads the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), an independent, non-profit academic institution launched by the Hainan Nanhai Research Foundation. She also holds a joint position of research fellow with National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) and China Institute, University of Alberta (CIUA).