China's maritime enforcement plan 'a threat' to Japan
Scholar says the decision to unify law enforcement agencies under a single authority will greatly boost Beijing's naval capacity in the East China Sea
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
China's decision to place all its maritime law enforcement agencies under unified control is likely to dramatically enhance Beijing's naval capabilities and poses a significant threat to Japanese interests, analysts in Japan say.
Beijing intends to bring up to 17 organisations - the largest being the Public Security Ministry's coastguard operations, the Agriculture Ministry's fisheries patrols and the anti-smuggling operations of the General Administration of Customs - under one umbrella led by the National Oceanic Administration.
The restructuring, announced at the National People's Congress on Sunday, is in part a response to tensions with a number of neighbouring states - notably Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines - over territorial issues.
"This will give the new organisation greater authority and co-ordination capabilities at a higher level in the Chinese government, while at a functional level it will give these naval assets more partnerships in exercises, for example, when it comes to disputed territories," Masayuki Masuda, a China analyst at the National Institute of Defence Studies, said.
With a unified command structure, the new entity will be able to co-ordinate its maritime forces and "pose a very serious challenge" to Japanese forces in waters close to the disputed Senkaku archipelago, which China calls the Diaoyus, he said.
"This suggests that China feels uncomfortable with the Senkaku situation and that they are aware they need to step up their patrols in the region to show Chinese sovereignty over the islands," Masuda said. "China wants complete control of the situation and this poses the danger of an unexpected escalation of one of the territorial disputes, with Japan or any of the other nations."
Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, agreed that Beijing's proposal is "very significant for its impact on Japan's efforts to protect its maritime interests".
Ito said physical ownership of the islands was not China's priority because the barren and inhospitable isles offered little to its residents. More important, he believes, is the ability to use sovereignty over the territory to extend China's exclusive economic zone farther away from its shoreline and to simultaneously limit other countries' access to the waters of the East China Sea.
"China's concept of an EEZ is different to how other states understand the concept and how the United Nations recognises such territory," he said. "Beijing is also making intentional obstacles to the freedom of navigation of ships in the South China Sea. In order for China to protect its interests and claim these zones are under its control, it needs to strengthen the coercive capabilities of its maritime forces, so this proposal is very importent."
Enhancing naval capabilities to claim territory is being done in tandem with other measures, Ito said, such as the introduction of the Spratly and Paracel islands on maps of Chinese territory printed in Chinese passports.
And while China officially claims that the addition to its nationals' travel documents is merely a declaration of its hope that one day the islands might be recognised as Chinese territory, Ito expects the argument to come full circle in "a few decades" when Beijing could claim that because the islands had been on Chinese passports for many years, they must be Chinese territory.
"Strengthening its naval forces is very important for China, but at the same time it severely damages Japan's interests," he said. "The size of Japan's maritime territory is larger than that of China at present, but Beijing expanding the areas that it claims - this is truly a case of 'gunboat diplomacy' - will inevitably bring the two nations into further confrontation."