The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in the midst of a major, much-publicized augmentation of its maritime law-enforcement forces. The familiar lamentations among Chinese navalists—our law-enforcement ships are small and few; we can’t compare with other great powers—have been replaced by quiet recognition that China now possesses the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet. Were this simply an effort to enhance the PRC’s ability to enforce uncontroversial domestic law in uncontested waters, few would notice. But outside observers have seen a noteworthy pattern in China’s behavior: It uses the law-enforcement cutter as an instrument of foreign policy.
Despite frequent comment on Chinese expansion in maritime East Asia, there is a shocking dearth of scholarship on this topic. Foreign observers generally agree that by deploying unarmed coast guard ships—white hulls—to pursue interests, China is able to leverage its growing power while avoiding international opprobrium detrimental to other foreign-policy goals. However, there is little systematic discussion of what roles China’s maritime law-enforcement forces perform in their capacity as instruments of policy. This article will take a first step toward filling this gap.
The Weiquan Fleet
The PRC funds at least five agencies with responsibility for enforcing law along the coasts and in the waters over which it claims jurisidiction. Each of these agencies operates both boats and ships, which, when added up, number in the thousands. Most of these vessels, however, have no bearing on the current discussion. Indeed, the vast majority of China’s maritime law-enforcement forces serve traditional coast guard functions: rescuing stricken mariners, enforcing fishing regulations, fining polluters, deterring smugglers, and ensuring civilian vessels are up to code. For most of these duties, law-enforcement personnel operate small craft that do not leave the country’s 12–nautical mile territorial sea.
There is, however, a distinct force of oceangoing cutters that serve the ends of PRC foreign policy. These ships operate at far more extended ranges from China’s coasts. Although they perform some of the missions mentioned above, their primary focus is what official Chinese texts refer to as weiquan zhifa, meaning, using law enforcement to safeguard Chinese rights and interests against foreign encroachment. It is useful to conceptualize these vessels as constituting a rights-protection, or weiquan (pronounced “way-chwen”), fleet.
Given that the front lines of rights protection are found in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and remote island frontiers, the fleet requires the capacity to patrol hundreds of nautical miles from China’s shores. There is general consensus in China that this is work for vessels displacing at least 1,000 tons. But smaller ships have performed rights protection missions, and will continue to do so into the future.
At the heart of the Chinese weiquan fleet are the dozens of unarmed 500+ ton cutters operated by China Marine Surveillance (CMS), an agency under the State Oceanic Administration.1 Nobody affiliated with CMS attempts to disguise its outward focus. Authoritative Chinese publications have referred to CMS as China’s “second navy.” CMS leaders routinely tout its paramilitary nature. The story of the rights-protection fleet is largely a story of CMS.
To the CMS vessels, however, must be added the 500-ton (and larger) cutters of Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE), an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture. To be sure, FLE cutters have pressing fisheries-administration roles to fulfill, most of which are inoffensive to other states. Moreover, FLE serves as a conduit of international cooperation: For instance, its vessels and personnel have worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to suppress high-seas drift-net fishing in the Pacific Ocean. However, FLE statements and FLE actions reveal that rights protection is a big mission for the oceangoing FLE fleet. Unlike CMS ships, some FLE cutters are equipped with deck-mounted weapons (.50-caliber machine guns).
In 2013, efforts began to integrate at least parts of CMS and FLE, along with at least parts of two other agencies, into a new organization under the State Oceanic Administration to be called the China Coast Guard. For over a decade, Chinese commentators had called for unifying these agencies into a single entity. It did not make sense to have so many “dragons” managing the sea. However, it took a new high-level commitment to transform China into a “maritime power” to ultimately prompt the PRC to begin what would be, and has been, an extremely difficult reform. The primary impetus was clearly a desire to improve the effectiveness of maritime rights protection.
Unified Under Coast Guard Colors
At the time of this writing, all weiquan vessels formerly operated by CMS and FLE continue to perform rights-protection missions, albeit with new China Coast Guard colors and pennant numbers. The reform has likely meant improved coordination, made possible by the establishment of a China Coast Guard Command Center, which directs the integrated fleet from Beijing. The reform has also increased the number of ships engaging in rights-protection patrols. The roughly two dozen 500-ton (and larger) vessels of the former Border Defense Force (BDF), which rarely conducted blue-water patrols, are now to some extent integrated into the China Coast Guard’s rights-protection operations. BDF ships, it should be noted, are armed with deck guns.
In the last three years, the size of China’s rights-protection fleet has increased dramatically. This is an outcome of CMS, and to a lesser extent, FLE building programs; transfers of former naval vessels to law-enforcement agencies; and, as mentioned above, the creation of the China Coast Guard, which transformed coastal-patrol cutters into instruments of rights protection. In 2004, the large-displacement (greater than 1,000 tons) portion of China’s rights-protection fleet consisted of no more than 21 vessels. The fleet grew very slowly until 2011, when it began receiving ships at an unprecedented rate. By the end of 2014, the number reached more than 80 vessels. This figure does not include the dozens of smaller-displacement (less than 1,000 tons) rights-protection ships, which place the fleet at more than 100 hulls. This pace of growth shows no signs of slackening.
Many of the weiquan fleet’s recent additions have been very large-displacement cutters (greater than 3,000 tons). Aside from increased intimidation potential, bigger vessels can conduct longer patrols and endure more difficult seas, leading to expanded presence—a factor vital to the weiquan fleet’s utility. In 2012, CMS and FLE received several former naval vessels, almost all of which displaced over 3,000 tons; in 2014, at least four new 4,000-ton cutters and ten new 3,000-ton cutters reached the fleet. In early 2014, news emerged that the China Coast Guard would build at least one 10,000-ton rights-protection vessel, which would be the biggest dedicated coast guard cutter in the world.2 Two of these behemoths will likely enter service in 2015.
The Strategic Context
In China, the weiquan fleet is regarded as an instrument with which to safeguard the country’s maritime rights and interests. China generally frames these rights/interests in the language of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As a coastal state, China is entitled to delimit a territorial sea, contiguous zones, an EEZ, and, given special circumstances, an extended continental shelf, within which it can exercise certain sovereign and/or jurisdictional rights. Much of this is uncontroversial.
The need for a rights-protection fleet arises from the large number of intractable maritime disputes to which China is a party. These can be usefully categorized into three types. The first, most obvious type stems from conflicting claims to sovereignty over the dozens of mostly uninhabitable land features in the East and South China Seas and the 12-nm territorial seas that surround them. The second involves boundaries of maritime jurisdiction. The UNCLOS endows coastal states with a 200-nm EEZ, conferring on them the right to regulate certain activities within these zones. Disputes over territory inevitably engender disputes over maritime boundaries. But jurisdictional disputes may also arise when countries take opposing views on methods of delimitation. For example, China and Japan disagree about how to carve up the East China Sea, with Japan’s proposal for an equidistant line conflicting with China’s claim of an extended continental shelf. Moreover, China insists its unique history entitles it to some unspecified rights within the large swaths of the South China Sea falling within the now infamous “nine-dash line.” Lastly, the PRC disagrees with many other states on the nature of jurisdictional rights in the EEZ. It maintains that coastal states have the authority to restrict the activities of foreign naval vessels in these waters, a position that has led to high-profile incidents at sea with the United States, which rejects this right.3
When formulating policy, Chinese leaders must reconcile two contradictory objectives. One is to advance and defend the country’s maritime rights and interests, a desire captured by the aforementioned expression “weiquan.” The second is to maintain stable relations with other disputants, a pillar of Chinese grand strategy for the last 20 years. This objective is embodied by the two-character phrase weiwen. Having a fleet of unarmed or lightly armed patrol ships to pursue state interests at sea allows China to balance weiwen and weiquan, that is, to safeguard rights/interests without irrevocably harming relations with other states.4
The weiquan fleet performs a range of missions aimed at defending and advancing China’s position in the many disputes to which it is a party. Any given patrol may involve multiple objectives, settings, and tactics. To understand how it operates, it is useful to differentiate between missions to declare, missions to deny, and missions to defend.
In March 2001, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship threatened the USNS Bowditch (T-AGS-62) operating in waters beyond China’s territorial sea. The unarmed hydrographic-survey vessel left the area, eventually returning with a cruiser escort. When, two months later, the Bowditch turned up in the southern part of the Yellow Sea, Chinese leaders decided to transfer this thorny mission to CMS, then less than three years old. According to an authoritative account, the agency was entirely unprepared to handle this role. Despite a flurry of research, CMS officers unearthed no explicit legal justification for forbidding military activities in the EEZ. But they did ultimately derive inspiration from international law:
By studying international maritime law, our law enforcement personnel found the correct approach. We adopted the customary international approach: CMS ships maintained a certain safe distance [from the American ship] while tracking and monitoring it. At the right moment, we approached the Bowditch to observe its equipment and operations in real time. Moreover, we would frequently use high-frequency communications to admonish [the American ship], expressing our government’s position and attitude, pointing out its illegal behavior and demanding that it immediately halt its activities.5
This ultimately became the model for rights-protection missions to uphold China’s position on foreign military activities in the EEZ. CMS ships would intercept foreign-state vessels operating in China’s EEZ and communicate—literally, “yell words” (hanhua)—China’s position directly to the crew of the offending vessel. Weiquan forces represented the Chinese state, embodying China’s position without actually threatening to impose it. This approach, which may usefully be called “declaratory law enforcement,” came to be captured by the eight-character expression “declare sovereignty, manifest jurisdiction.”
Despite periodic breaches of restraint, this model endures. For instance, on its maiden voyage in June 2013, CMS 5001 tracked the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23), demanding she cease operations in the East China Sea. When the American ship refused to comply, CMS 5001 did not escalate the confrontation.6 China has used the weiquan fleet to register dissatisfaction with the military vessels of other countries, including Japan and Russia.
China has also applied the declaratory approach to disputes involving maritime-boundary delimitation. In 2004, for example, CMS vessels patrolled disputed waters east of the equidistant line in the East China Sea, tracking and verbally harassing Japanese surveying vessels operating there. In 2006, CMS ships began “regular rights-protection patrols” in the East China Sea. By the end of 2008, CMS expanded those patrols to include all waters claimed by China, “from the mouth of the Yalu River to the James Shoal,” with a special emphasis on waters “in which rights infringements take place most frequently.”7 These patrols continue to constitute the core of weiquan operations. Aside from maritime-domain awareness and collecting intelligence, the primary purpose is to show Chinese presence as a means to inject credibility into Chinese claims.
Weiquan vessels also patrol the territorial seas of disputed land features. Chinese ships, of course, have long patrolled the sovereign waters surrounding land features China already controls, such as Mischief Reef and the Paracel Islands. However, weiquan forces also sail through and loiter in the waters surrounding foreign-controlled features. In December 2008, two CMS ships entered the territorial sea of the Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyu Islands, to the Chinese), inaugurating China’s administrative presence there.8 Weiquan forces notably took part in declaratory missions to the islands in October 2010, following Japanese detention of a wayward Chinese fishing-boat captain, and again in September 2012, after the Japanese government announced it had purchased some of the islets from private owners.
The purpose of declaratory law enforcement is to embody, not forcibly impose, China’s position in a dispute. It signals intentions to other disputants, without conveying explicit threats. The declare mission constitutes an example of what James Cable called the “expressive” use of sea power. It occurs frequently, but ultimately achieves little.9
Weiquan vessels, however, also perform more substantial missions, which may be profitably called “coercive law enforcement.” These involve actual efforts to exercise administrative prerogatives within disputed waters, on the basis of Chinese domestic law. One component of coercive law enforcement is denying foreign use of the sea. The deny mission has long taken place in disputed waters already under Chinese control. FLEC vessels, for instance, patrol the waters adjacent to the Paracel Islands, driving away Vietnamese fishing vessels that would seek to use them. In the 12-month period from July 2012 to July 2013, weiquan forces expelled 164 foreign fishing vessels, most of them presumably Vietnamese, operating “illegally” near the Paracel Islands.10
Weiquan forces also perform this mission in waters more vigorously contested by other states. These efforts target both foreign fishing vessels and oil/gas-exploration operations. In 2011, Chinese law-enforcement ships impeded seismic-survey operations conducted by companies approved by the governments of the Philippines (the Veritas Voyager, in March) and Vietnam (the Binh Minh 2, in May).11 Weiquan forces do obstruct foreign fishing in the eastern and southern sections of the South China Sea, but due to the vast spaces involved, the distance from the Chinese coast, and the scale of foreign maritime activity, China has been far less successful at suppressing foreign fishing operations in these areas.
In many cases, verbal commands laced with threats are adequate to compel foreign fishing and other civilian vessels to cease their “illegal” operations. However, if foreign vessels refuse to comply, weiquan forces may use coercive tactics to compel them to do so. These include aggressive maneuvering, deploying floodlights and water cannon, and, if necessary, ramming.
Weiquan forces also perform the deny mission as a means of preventing foreign access to disputed land features. This, of course, directly affects the sovereign status of the land itself. In April 2012, two CMS ships engaged in a tense confrontation with a Philippine naval ship at Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited land feature in the Macclesfield Bank. In an apparent act of perfidy, Chinese forces reneged on a U.S.-brokered agreement for mutual withdrawal. After Philippine vessels departed, China enveloped the area with its own naval, civil, and civilian maritime forces—creating concentric circles of control that one Chinese admiral compared to cabbage leaves.12 Ongoing China Coast Guard patrols to the Senkaku Islands also have a coercive dimension. In April 2013, CMS ships intercepted and drove off a Japanese civilian vessel attempting to approach the islands.13
The weiquan fleet also performs missions to assert Chinese use of disputed waters. This usually involves protecting Chinese civilian vessels exploiting the sea for economic purposes. The weiquan fleet’s primary benefactors include fishing boats and oil/gas-exploration vessels and platforms. In June 2007, a China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) ship attempted to survey waters west of the Paracel islands. Vietnamese paramilitary vessels converged on the scene to obstruct her operations. In response, China deployed CMS forces to interpose their vessels in between the CNPC ship and her tormentors. Despite operating far more capable platforms, the CMS flotilla was barely adequate to the task, bearing out the old truism about conflict at sea that it is easier to attack than to defend.14
The dozens of China Coast Guard ships, the cream of the weiquan fleet, deployed to guard a deep-water drilling rig (HYSY 981) from May to July 2014 further illustrate this mission—what it looks like and how difficult (and costly) it is to perform in the face of a committed adversary. This incident also vividly demonstrates another reality of weiquan operations, i.e., the vital deterrent role played by the other more minatory forms of Chinese sea power, especially the PLAN. The presence of PLAN surface combatants within the flotilla protecting HYSY 981 signaled Chinese resolve to use force if provoked, exemplifying what Edward Luttwak calls “active naval suasion.” The PLAN also deters foreign retaliation by its mere existence: Witness the capacity of two unarmed ships—CMS 75 and 84—to paralyze the Gregorio del Pilar outside the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal in April 2012.15
Weiquan vessels also protect Chinese fishermen operating in disputed waters. In 2010, FLE cutters began convoying Chinese fishing fleets to their fishing grounds in the remote east and southeast sections of the South China Sea. In March 2013, FLE 310 appears to have threatened violence against an Indonesian coast guard vessel caught in the act of detaining Chinese fishermen operating in Indonesian-claimed waters.16 Of course, the Scarborough Shoal standoff was precipitated by a vigorous CMS response to requests for help by Chinese fishermen. Many Chinese fishing vessels now carry advanced communications equipment enabling them to alert weiquan forces in the event of foreign harassment.17
Trends and Directions
The above discussion outlines the spectrum of missions performed by Chinese rights-protection forces. Oceangoing cutters operated by CMS, FLE, and now the China Coast Guard patrol both disputed and undisputed waters and defend and advance China’s positions in its disputes involving sovereignty, jurisdictional boundary delimitation, and the nature of jurisdictional rights. Tactics range from mere presence and verbal declarations to driving away other ships with threats of ramming and light arms.
As may be guessed, the known cases of Chinese maritime rights protection suggest not consistency but progression. Rights-protection missions have expanded in number and intensity. Prior to 2010, the fleet engaged in mostly declaratory law enforcement: tracking and verbally harassing foreign surveillance vessels operating in China’s EEZ and patrolling disputed waters to show administration. However, the weiquan fleet is increasingly tasked with missions that transcend the symbolic and declaratory.
Before December 2008, Chinese law-enforcement vessels had never been to the Senkaku Islands. Now they haunt the islets, undermining Japanese administrative control and denying Japanese civilian access to them. Scarborough Shoal is now under China’s “effective control.” The same dynamic appears to be playing out with the Second Thomas Shoal, which Chinese Coast Guard cutters have lately resolved to blockade. Underpinning these events are expanded “regular rights-protection patrols” in disputed waters. The frequency and intensity of recent events at sea inspired He Xuming, Deputy Commander of the CMS East Sea Department, to describe the current situation as “war without gunsmoke” and prompted Chinese analysts to conclude that China has recalibrated its overall approach for dealing with maritime disputes away from weiwen in favor of weiquan.18
The geographic scope of Chinese maritime activism is also expanding. In the early 2000s, CMS forces rarely took to blue water. Now, China Coast Guard ships are on constant deployment hundreds of miles from the mainland coast. Weiquan forces continue to push the boundaries of their operations. In August 2013 China Coast Guard vessels began patrolling the North and South Luconia Shoals, claimed by Malaysia.19
These conclusions fit the known facts. They also align with the explicit objectives of Chinese policy. The 12th Five-Year Plan for Maritime Development (2011–2015), for instance, clearly states PRC aspirations to “increase the time and space coverage of rights-protection patrols within jurisdictional waters” and “strengthen effective control over jurisdictional waters.”20 During his tenure (2011–2014), State Oceanic Administration Director Liu Cigui regularly highlighted the need for China to strengthen “administrative control” in disputed waters. While it is impossible to predict the future trajectory of Chinese maritime rights protection, it is safe to assume that China has built the world’s largest coast guard fleet to turn these aims into reality.