China’s military police given control of coastguard as Beijing boosts maritime security

Restructuring necessary to ensure Communist Party’s ‘absolute leadership over the PLA and other armed forces’, document says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 7:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 11:11am

China has shifted control of its coastguard to its armed police force in a clear show of Beijing’s commitment to protecting the nation’s waterways.

As part of the latest restructuring of state organisations, announced on Wednesday, the China Coast Guard will come under the administration of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a paramilitary force that was itself recently put under the direct command of the Central Military Commission (CMC).

The coastguard’s troops and functions – which were previously controlled by the State Oceanic Administration – will pass to the PAP as they currently stand, but will later be reorganised, according to the Plan of Restructuring.

The transfer is necessary “to fully implement the Party’s absolute leadership over the PLA and other armed forces,” the document said.

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Responsibility for the enforcement of maritime law was given to the PAP when the force was put under the sole command of the CMC in January. It had previously been jointly controlled by the CMC and the State Council.

Military observer Ni Lexiong said the restructuring of the coastguard would mean better training for its personnel and a boost to its capabilities, as it would now be run as a military, rather than civilian, outfit.

However, the move could remove some of the diplomatic leeway China had in handling conflicts, he said, as in maritime disputes, having the buffer of a non-military authority could often help to reduce tensions.

“But, clearly, the confirmation of the party’s absolute control over the military and the consolidation of all armed forces is a higher priority,” Ni said. “This shows that domestic considerations prevail.”

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Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation think tank in the US, said the transfer of coastguard to the PAP would have far-reaching consequences.

“The transfer to the PAP has formalised command and control of the coastguard along military, not civilian lines,” he said. “The implication of the coastguard being placed under the direct chain of command of the CMC is that the coastguard will enjoy more flexibility and authority to act decisively, if it choses, in disputed waters in the East and South China Sea.”

The move would also free up the coastguard to train more extensively and share operational intelligence with the People’s Liberation Army Navy, he added.

“This may have major implications for how the coastguard may use force and its war-fighting functions with the PLA Navy. Although China may never state explicitly that the coastguard has a wartime function, this reform makes clear it has such authorities if it so chooses.”

China’s coastguard was set up in 2013 with the consolidation of four government agencies responsible for maritime administration, policing, customs and fisheries. As well as protecting the nation’s claims in the disputed waters of the East and South China Seas, it is responsible for search and rescue efforts, fighting smugglers and managing fisheries.

On Monday, four Chinese coastguard ships were involved in a patrol in waters near the Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan.

The government reshuffle will also see the Central Maritime Rights Leadership Group, a committee set up in 2012 to oversee maritime issues, being absorbed into the Central Foreign Affairs Committee.

The move is designed to “better coordinate the resources and manpower of diplomatic and maritime departments”, according to the restructuring plan.

The State Oceanic Administration, meanwhile, will cease to operate as an independent agency, and its functions will be subsumed by the newly formed Ministry of Natural Resources.

Additional reporting by Laura Zhou