FEATURED | China’s Best Weapon in Maritime Disputes, its Coast Guard

FEATURED | China’s Best Weapon in Maritime Disputes, its Coast Guard

By Robert Potter

In signaling its intent in the South and East China Seas, China faces a challenge of how to calibrate its response. Sending the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into direct confrontation with rivals would be interpreted as bellicose.

FEATURED | China’s Best Weapon in Maritime Disputes, its Coast Guard
The use of civilian ships would not send a strong enough signal of sovereignty. Sitting between these two is the Chinese Coast Guard which when deployed to a space reinforces sovereign claims while also appearing less belligerent than the use of PLAN ships. The development and use of this force has been fundamental to China’s success in keeping tensions at a minimum while asserting claims to territory.

In March of 2013, China passed legislation that transformed four maritime law enforcement agencies into a Coast Guard. This new organization has been expanded substantially since then. At this point there are more than 100 ships serving in the Chinese Coast Guard, making it the largest coast guard in the world and this number shows little sign of slowing down. These ships are the perfect weapon for China to use as a tool of coercive diplomacy in its maritime disputes.

A typical mission for the Coast Guard involves the protection of what China’s sees as its maritime rights and claims. This involves interdicting fishing ships from other states, protecting its own fishing ships, disrupting surveys and even blockading the operations of other states looking to defend their own claims. The main aim of these deployments seems to be to normalize China’s presence in disputed territory while also making it more difficult for other states to operate.

The SOA is perfectly equipped to complete these missions. The use of PLAN assets would look very much like an invasion. Carriers might be referred to as ‘acres of sovereign and mobile territory’ but the use of such ships will be interpreted as traditional gunboat diplomacy whereby a larger power imposes its will on a smaller state. The use of Coast Guard ships implies sovereignty and defense. It is clearly China’s desire for these forces to appear as a traditional coast guard, to the point where they have painted their cutters in the same red, white and blue style as their U.S. equivalents. This represents is a direct attempt to leverage a specific image.

The missions carried out by China’s Coast Guard might not seem congruent to that of the United States but the use of these ships is Beijing’s method of saying that it wants these ships to be perceived within that context. These efforts are designed to manage tensions while still leveraging China’s capability to impose costs on rivals. The navy that sinks a Chinese Coast Guard ship will most likely be perceived differently to the one that sinks a PLAN vessel. This provides a direct disincentive to escalate tensions in reply to the deployment of these vessels while also softening the image of China’s efforts to push their claims.

The trend in these missions is escalating, both in terms of scope and number of operations. In the early 2000s it was rare for Chinese coastal forces to be deployed into blue water environments. Presently, Chinas ships are constantly deployed and their numbers are increasing. China has also supported these efforts by building bases to support their forward deployment. As a result, China will probably continue to work within this strategy.

These forces represent the perfect platform for Beijing to use in order to push its co-called ‘salami’ strategy. The deployment of a coast guard ship is not, on its own, a grave enough threat to be cause for war. Over time these efforts repeated add up to substantial strategic change. Complimenting these efforts is the slow pace but increasing pace of China in pushing out its actual level of control in the South and East China Seas.

Taken together the Coast Guard units represent the core of China’s efforts to assert its claims in disputed territory. The use of naval or civilian ships within these spaces would not facilitate the outcome that Beijing is looking for. As a result, China has built a force that can be deployed in pursuit of a specific goal. It has shown a desire to represent its capability in line with existing norms relating to coastal forces in order to emphasize its claims without the appearance of outright naval coercion. As a result, the Coast Guard forces have become China’s most successful weapon in its maritime disputes.

About The Author:

Robert Potter is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. Prior to this he was Research Assistant Volunteer at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Prior to this he was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University – Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, School of International and Public Affairs. Thomson Reuters Researcher ID: L-5421-2015 / Twitter Handle: @rpotter_9

Cite This Article:

Potter, Robert "China’s Best Weapon in Maritime Disputes, its Coast Guard" IndraStra Global 002, 02, (2016) 0020, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/02/FEATURED-Chinas-Best-Weapon-in-Maritime-Disputes-Coast-Guard-002-02-2016-0020.html, 

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