Unlike most countries, China has no unified coast guard. Instead it has five independent maritime agencies with a combined total of 40,000 personnel. Over the past decade it has vastly expanded the roles and capabilities of these agencies until they are now treated as instruments of foreign policy. The largest of the five agencies is the Maritime Safety Administration, which employs 20,000 people and is tasked with implementing maritime laws. A second group, the Maritime Police, is part of China's Border Control Department and is sometimes called the Chinese Coast Guard. The Maritime Police appears to be the only agency that is officially armed, so it is responsible for reinforcing the other agencies.
A third agency is the General Administration of Customs, which counters smuggling and is responsible for port control. A fourth agency, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, is used to stake fishing claims in disputed waters. This agency is significant because China is the largest consumer of fish worldwide and because China has developed more deep-water and long-range fishing capabilities in recent years, expanding the area the agency must defend. The fifth agency is the State Oceanic Administration, which employs 6,000-8,000 personnel. The most important and fastest-growing branch within this agency is China Marine Surveillance, which is tasked with enforcing China's Exclusive Economic Zone and has taken the lead in China's recent territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The lack of a unified coast guard causes its share of challenges. The agencies often have jurisdiction and interagency communications problems and compete with each other for resources and control, and most cannot provide their own air support or armed reinforcements. Despite these issues, the government sees a benefit in keeping the agencies separated. The current system allows China to employ more people, which is always a priority for the government. Also, because most of these agencies have been around for years, the divisions have been institutionalized, and there is little incentive or desire to consolidate them.
These five agencies and the numerous sub-branches within them provide a large civilian force through which Beijing can maintain a presence in the waters of strategic interest to China. The East and South China seas contain significant natural resources and the sea-lanes surrounding China are critical to the country's export-based economy. Additionally, by deploying civilian maritime agencies rather than the navy to a particular area, China ensures a proportional response from other countries; traditionally, a country will send coast guard vessels to interact with other countries' coast guard vessels and naval vessels with other naval vessels. This also prevents the United States from interfering in Asian maritime disputes because only the U.S. Navy, not the U.S. Coast Guard, operates in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asian waters.
This assertive approach has not gone unnoticed by other powers. During a conference hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute in February, a high-ranking U.S. Pacific Command officer said, "China Marine Surveillance cutters have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China's expansive claims." Beijing has continually positioned its forces in areas it claims to reinforce the notion that the territory belongs to China, and these forces have shadowed and at times intimidated other ships that have entered the areas.
Using maritime forces as a foreign policy tool puts pressure on smaller countries without being blatantly aggressive and risking undue escalation. The result of this strategic thinking has been evident as China stirs up tensions over islands, fishing, resources and borders around its Exclusive Economic Zones. For example, China uses its Fisheries Law Enforcement Command to control fishing in contested waters, especially in the South China Sea, despite opposition from countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
China faces some problems with this strategy, however. Some countries, including Japan, have reacted to China's moves by building up their own coast guards. The increasing capabilities of the Japanese coast guard are a direct response to China's increased use of civilian maritime forces. Even as other parts of Japan's government and military have faced budget cuts, the Japanese coast guard has seen budget increases for new ships and aircraft. The Japanese coast guard is much smaller than the combined five maritime agencies of China, but it is also more experienced and efficient. Japan has also reached out to the Philippines and Vietnam, countries that have been affected by China's increased maritime jockeying. A continuation of Chinese assertiveness has the potential to unite these neighbors in cooperation against China.
Nowhere is the strategic use of coast guards more obvious than in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute. As much as half of the Japanese 11th Coast Guard District, headquartered in Naha, Okinawa, has been deployed to the islands to assert Japan's authority. Because of the added strain from spreading the force too thin, the Japanese coast guard announced it would create a new 600-member unit specifically tasked with Senkaku security. For Beijing, China Marine Surveillance has become the main agency deployed around the islands and makes regular appearances in Japanese waters. Consequently, it has seen a number of new vessels and retired Chinese naval ships added to its fleet.
Civilian maritime agencies have taken on a whole new role as an instrument for asserting Chinese influence. As China exerts more pressure on other Asian countries, those countries will attempt to meet the challenge, exactly as Japan is doing now. But as the territorial disputes drag on, the smaller Asian countries will need to develop a foreign policy, not just a bigger coast guard, aimed at dealing with a more aggressive China.