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The Chinese coastguard, which is controlled by the armed police, has been at the front line as tensions rise in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Beijing seeks boost for armed police, coastguard as tensions rise in South China Sea

  • Paramilitary force will come under centralised command and it will get more resources under draft revision to the law
  • It also sets out tasks and gives guidance on defence and combat at sea, including scenarios in which weapons can be used

China is moving to boost the power of its armed police and the role of its coastguard in maritime law enforcement at a time of renewed tensions with its neighbours in the South China Sea.

A draft law revision submitted to the country’s top legislature on Sunday proposes changes including centralising command of the People’s Armed Police and giving it more resources, state news agency Xinhua reported.

It also specifies punishment for anyone who obstructs armed police officers carrying out law enforcement, the report said, without elaborating.

China’s 1.5 million-strong armed police is a paramilitary force mainly responsible for internal security, riot control, anti-terrorism, law enforcement and protecting maritime rights. The country’s coastguard, whose vessels are increasingly seen in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, is controlled by the armed police.

A Chinese coastguard vessel is seen from an Indonesian Navy ship during a patrol north of the Natuna Islands in January. Photo: Reuters

The amendment seeks to move the armed police directly under the command of the Communist Party’s Central Committee as well as the Central Military Commission (CMC), both of which are chaired by President Xi Jinping. It has been under CMC control since 2017.

It also sets out the tasks of the paramilitary force, including handling emergency rescues and terrorist attacks, and includes guidance on safeguarding rights, law enforcement, defence and combat at sea, such as scenarios in which weapons can be used.

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It calls for a more efficient organisational and command system, and for the armed police to join a national intelligence-sharing network. The armed police would also get more funding “commensurate with its duties and development”, according to the report.

The revision now awaits review and approval by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

It is the second time in four years that China has sought to reform its armed police – the role of the paramilitary force was expanded and it was placed under the command of the CMC in 2017.

Peng Peng, vice-president of the Guangdong System Reform Research Society, a think tank, said the amendment aimed to give the party more control over the armed police, which had more important duties than in the past.

“The armed police will now have rules to follow during law enforcement, defence and even combat at sea, and it means the armed police force will shoulder part of the national defence responsibilities,” Peng said.

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China’s coastguard has been at the front line as tensions rise in the South China Sea, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with Hanoi and other rival claimants. Early this month, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after a collision with a Chinese coastguard vessel near the contested Paracel Islands, with both sides claiming their ships had been rammed.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the latest move was about unifying command and leadership structures.

“This doesn’t appear to only influence the manner in which Chinese maritime law enforcement is conducted, but also how agencies such as China’s coastguard would work more closely with the [People’s Liberation Army] in peacetime contingencies including that involving China’s maritime sovereignty and rights,” he said.

“This could potentially mean more integration between these forces along the civil-military fusion line that’s been in the works for years.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Armed police set for more powers as sea tensions grow