China has announced plans to bring its patchwork of maritime law enforcement agencies together under a single body amid a series of tense territorial disputes with neighbouring countries.
The National Oceanic Administration (NOA), which already oversees marine surveillance, will also take over the Public Security Ministry's coastguard patrols, the Agriculture Ministry's fisheries patrols and the General Administration of Customs' anti-smuggling efforts.
Ma Kai, the secretary general of the State Council, told the National People's Congress yesterday that having coastal security forces scattered across several agencies was inadequate. He said the consolidation would better "safeguard the country's maritime rights".
A consultative body, the National Oceanic Commission, would be established to help formulate strategies for developing maritime resources.
The restructuring follows months of angry exchanges between Beijing, Tokyo, Manila and other neighbours over overlapping land claims in the East and South China seas. The dispute with Japan in particular has stirred concerns about a possible military confrontation, as both nations are conducting rival boat patrols around the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands in the East China Sea and have even scrambled fighter jets.
Lands and Resources Minister Xu Shaoshi, whose agency oversees the NOA, said the restructuring would help China improve efforts to protect its sovereign territory. He declined to say when the plan would be fully implemented.
General Liu Yuan, political commissar of the People's Liberation Army's General Logistics Department, said the restructuring could reduce the risks of a military face-off between China and other countries' navies.
"The army is distanced from conducting regular patrols around the ocean," he said.
There are currently 17 agencies, including the Foreign Ministry and the PLA, responsible for managing the sea.
Domestic critics have been pressing Beijing to raise the oceanic administration to the ministerial level and improve maritime law enforcement.
Gao Shu, an oceanic affairs professor at Nanjing University, said there were still questions about the restructuring, particularly about the security ministry's role.
Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor at Peking University, said expanding the role of the oceanic administration would face resistance because it would mean a reduction in resources for other government agencies.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan and Kwong Man-ki