Chinese Coast Guard Development: Challenge and Opportunity

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 23

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter RUSH (WHEC-723) in Shanghai

Issues related to so-called non-traditional security have been inadequately explored in the context of rapid Chinese maritime development. If Chinese perceptions toward coastal management, port security, narco-trafficking, coastal environmental protection, response to hazardous spills at sea,  typhoon preparation, as well as search and rescue are poorly understood outside of China, then cooperation among the maritime powers of East Asia will likely remain underdeveloped, which may have negative consequences for regional security [1]. This report briefly surveys the accelerating development of China’s maritime enforcement and management capabilities, and also examines the attendant strategic implications for U.S. interests, including the importance of continuing and even accelerating nascent coast guard cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region.

The manifold challenges confronting China’s maritime enforcement and management capabilities are amply evident to Chinese maritime analysts themselves. These capacities are viewed as being disproportionately small given the scale of China’s maritime development.  Faculty at the Ningbo China Coast Guard Academy wrote in a 2006 study (hereafter referred to as the “Ningbo Academy Study”):  “Our current maritime law enforcement forces … are not commensurate with our status and image as a great power.” These authors elaborate as follows:  “Currently, among maritime enforcement ships, the vast majority consists of small patrol boats of less than 500 tons, and the number of ship-borne helicopters is such that these forces cannot meet the requirements of comprehensive maritime law enforcement” [2]. 

By contrast, other Pacific powers, and especially the United States and Japan, wield strong and efficient coast guards. This unfavorable comparison is well documented and understood among Chinese maritime analysts [3]. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is equipped with 250 aircraft of different types, while the Japanese Coast Guard has about 75. With much less developed aviation forces, Chinese coast guard entities probably field fewer than three dozen aircraft of all types [4]. Aircraft are crucial for both long-range patrol, on the one hand, and complicated rescues, on the other. These numbers are reflective of the large gap that separates China from these other major Pacific coast guard forces. 

Five Dragons Stirring Up the Sea

At least five major agencies currently have a hand in China’s maritime enforcement policy. Of these, the “China Coast Guard” is neither the largest, nor the most prestigious of the “five dragons stirring up the sea.” The China Coast Guard, known as the Haijing (Maritime Police), however, is at least for now the only maritime enforcement agency in China that operates ships that are visibly armed. In addition to fast patrol boats apparently capable of speeds up to 52 knots, the Maritime Police are also reportedly deploying small (type 218) and large (type 718) cutters (coast guard vessels). The latter design displaces 1,500 tons and is about 100 meters (328 feet) in length and has a 37mm deck gun. The Maritime Police also recently took over two reconfigured Jianghu-class frigates from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), but this service does not yet appear to wield aviation assets [5]. With the crime-fighting mission as its primary duty, the Maritime Police are also concerned with piracy and the threat of terrorism. During the 2008 Olympic Games, the Maritime Police apparently sortied 30 ships each day and stopped or detained over 1,000 vessels in support of security at the games [6]. 

Two additional agencies are at least as influential in maritime governance as the Maritime Police. These are the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) of the Ministry of Transport and the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). The relative prestige of these agencies is demonstrated by the faster pace at which these agencies have each been deploying new patrol cutters and the fact that each already wields nascent fixed wing and helicopter aviation forces [7]. In terms of manpower, MSA exceeds any of the other maritime enforcement agencies with over 20,000 personnel, reflecting both the power of China’s commercial maritime interests generally, and the range of missions—from certifying seafarers to maintaining aids to navigation—that MSA oversees. Indeed, the transport ministry wields considerable influence in formulating China’s maritime policies; for instance, this ministry rather than the defense ministry appears to have been the major impetus pushing for the recent and unprecedented naval deployments to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden [8]. 

Since the 1999 Dashun ferry disaster in which 304 passengers perished in daylight a few miles offshore in the Yellow Sea, dramatic improvements have been made in maritime search and rescue with the near term goal of reducing rescue time within 50 miles of the coast to under 150 minutes (Xinhua News Agency, February 12, 2003). With special assistance from Hong Kong’s airborne patrol and rescue service, MSA has established numerous flying bases along the coast and has began to make heliborne rescues at sea beginning in 2006. A number of new large cutters have been added recently, including very large salvage vessels with advanced systems such as variable pitch propellers. The most recent large cutter (114 meters in length) to join the extensive MSA fleet was Haixun 11, commissioned at Weihai in September 2009. 

The CMS has the primary mission of patrolling China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as defined by the Law of the Sea Convention—which extends 200 nautical miles from the state’s coast—and preventing environmental abuse along China’s extensive coastline. A 2008 report featured in the official China Daily revealed that CMS had a total of nine aircraft and more than 200 patrol vessels (China Daily, October 21). Of late, CMS has received at least three new large cutters including Haijian 46, Haijian 51 and Haijian 83 [9]. Since 2006, CMS has significantly stepped up patrols in both the East China Sea and also the southern part of the South China Sea. In October 2008, CMS Deputy Director Sun Shuxian declared that, “The [CMS] force will be upgraded to a reserve unit under the navy, a move which will make it better armed during patrols … the current defensive strength of CMS is inadequate” (China Daily, October 20, 2008). Aside from CMS, SOA also undertakes considerable oceanographic research, overseeing China’s arctic research program, for example (See Joseph Spears, "China and the Arctic: The Awakening Snow Dragon," China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 6, March 18). 

While a number of other agencies are also involved in maritime management, an additional major actor is the anti-smuggling force of the General Administration of Customs, which among other missions works with the Public Security Ministry against the proliferating illegal drug trade. According to one report, maritime narco-trafficking may be a significant challenge in China, which only seems logical given the lengthy coastline and wide variety of entry ports [10].  Finally, there is the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), which has seen fewer investments over the last decade than the other aforementioned agencies, but has been promised more resources to remedy the difficult situation prevailing in China’s coastal fisheries (See Lyle Goldstein, "Strategic Implications of Chinese Fisheries Development," China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 16, August 5).
The aggregate force of these five maritime enforcement ‘dragons’ represents substantial Chinese capabilities, yet serious issues of coordination and rationalization in this balkanized bureaucratic structure remain. Among maritime enforcement entities, it is natural and proper to consider how roles, missions and resources are allocated between coast guard forces, on the one hand, and navies on the other. Sea power theorist Geoffrey Till explains that overlap is inevitable and logical, but that there is a spectrum of coast guard models that all entail a different kind of relationship with national navies. Till additionally observes:  “With the widening of the concept of security, accelerated perhaps by the events of September 11, the extent of potential overlap is increasing in ways which raise issues over who should be responsible for what.” While bifurcation of coast guard and navy functions is a relatively new concept in the Chinese context, it is apparent that Chinese maritime strategists understand that many coast guards regularly undertake national security functions. Indeed, one Chinese expert from China’s National Defense University suggested in June 2009 that large Chinese coast guard cutters could be easily converted for use in far seas combat, while small and medium-sized coast guard vessels could support coastal defense, undertaking such missions as laying defensive minefields (Global Times [China], June 21). Further evidence suggests that the PLA will support a strengthened Chinese coast guard, because of the high priority Beijing now places on effectively managing its EEZ, in addition to the perception that China has been disadvantaged by falling far behind other regional actors in this middle domain of maritime power [11].

Despite visible improvements over the last decade, China’s maritime enforcement capacities remain relatively weak compared to the other major powers in the Asia-Pacific region. Some notions to explain this condition are derived from variants of political modernization, economic development as well as bureaucratic politics theories. For example, research by Richard Suttmeier helps to shed light on how the Chinese are reappraising the issues of safety and risk in the present era. After appraising China’s strong record in improving civil aviation safety, he concludes that “… the wealth and power expected from ‘modernization’ have long been seen in China—and elsewhere—as risk-reducing, safety-enhancing developments …”.  Wealth and education can bring about China’s “sixth modernization”—enabling Beijing “to manage environmental and technological risk.” Suttmeier does ask the provocative question of whether the “sixth modernization” can proceed without further political liberalization that would support “transparency in China’s risk management strategies” by empowering “activist civil organizations that have autonomy and … resources” [12]. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that there are powerful corporate entities in China demanding the orderly management of ports and the safe, reliable passage of ships and the goods they carry. From this perspective, coast guard improvements may be seen as one form of new insurance for the massive investments made in China’s maritime trade. Of course, another basic explanation for China’s relative weakness in this area is that it still lacks a single, powerful coast guard to oversee all maritime enforcement and management functions. Nevertheless, it should still be said that China has made very considerable progress over a short period, so that this period of weakness is rapidly receding into the past.

A Proven Record of Results in Maritime Security Cooperation

Coast guards are uniquely positioned to lead in further developing a cooperative maritime security agenda. Indeed, while navy-to-navy contact regrettably remains quite limited, coast guard cooperation has blossomed between the United States and China. This has involved, for example, the regular exchange of inspectors and security specialists to one another’s key ports—no doubt a step in the direction of transparency and building trust. The U.S. Coast Guard has developed an innovative solution to enforcing the U.N. prohibition against driftnet fishing by taking Chinese shipriders aboard USCG cutters to patrol the vast expanses of the North Pacific. These shipriders of the China FLEC have the authority to search and seize Chinese violators. The global environmental crisis demands more such examples of creative environmental cooperation between Washington and Beijing and this case should be studied carefully. Examples that are even more concrete include major, complex rescues requiring the collaboration of maritime forces from both the United States and China. This occurred in July 2007 when 13 Chinese sailors were pulled from the water after the merchant vessel Haitong 7 sank in a typhoon 300 miles northwest of Guam. In addition, Chinese students have been attending summer courses at the USCG Academy for a few years. A vital reason for the success of the USCG in building relationships with several of China’s maritime enforcement and management agencies has been the consistently high level of commitment from the USCG leadership, as demonstrated most recently by Commandant Thad Allen’s visit to China during the summer of 2009. Most recently, a large USCG cutter visited Shanghai in early November for a joint search and rescue exercise, while during the same period a team of Chinese scientists embarked briefly on a USCG icebreaker off Alaska to retrieve scientific data. With limited resources, the USCG cannot devote much effort to international outreach and cooperation. Yet, the effort that has been extended to date is building a vital layer of the nascent foundation for maritime security cooperation in the Western Pacific and is therefore critically important to American strategy in the region.

China’s coast guard entities are rapidly expanding their capabilities and proficiency. The results are amply evident in the many rescues of both Chinese and also foreign nationals now occurring in the crowded sea lanes proximate to the Chinese coast. Whether or not Beijing opts to unify its many maritime agencies in a single powerful coast guard, the increasing strength of China’s maritime enforcement capacities may well result in a more robust posture with respect to various maritime sovereignty and resources disputes. The role of some of these agencies in the March 2009 incident with the USNS Impeccable may hint at this new bearing and also to the certainty that many challenges still lie ahead for establishing enhanced regional maritime cooperation. A more subtle but no less significant implication will be China’s much higher profile in oceans policy and maritime management issues in various significant regions, from Southeast Asia reaching across the Indian Ocean to Africa.  Nevertheless, there are some rather encouraging signs that China’s coast guard entities will take a sophisticated view of maritime security. The Ningbo Academy study authors, for example, reiterate this highly significant point:  “Naturally, in the course of the struggle for national interests, contradictions are inevitable. The real question is what means are used to settle these disputes. Giving full play to the government’s capabilities, deploying the navy cautiously and strenuously trying to limit the conflict’s scope to among the civil maritime authorities, can avoid a resort to escalation of the crisis” [13]. Such reasoning among Chinese maritime strategists strongly suggests that China’s emergence as a “responsible maritime stakeholder” in the 21st century is feasible if the current momentum for regional and global maritime security is adequately supported and even accelerated.


1. A laudable effort to understand China’s approach to nontraditional security issues is Susan L. Craig, Chinese Perceptions of Traditional and Nontraditional Security Threats (Carlisle:  U.S. Army War College, 2007). Yet, this effort does not discuss the Chinese coast guard or maritime security issues generally.
2. He Zhonglong et al., Research on the Building of the Chinese Coast Guard, pp. 69, 145. Original in Chinese.
3. See, for example,  Bai Junfeng, Conception Regarding the Building of China’s Maritime Police, Maritime Management (March 2006), p. 35.
4. Author’s estimate drawn primarily from interviews in Beijing and Qingdao in 2006-07.
5. This information is mostly derived from Chen Guangwen, China’s Coast Guard Capabilities, Ordinance Knowledge (May 2009), pp. 50-51.
6. Author’s interviews in Beijing, April 2009.
7. See, for example, Sun Xuxian, China Maritime Surveillance:  Protecting the Nation’s Oceanic Interests, China National Defense Report, May 5, 2008, p. 21.
8. "Head of International Cooperation Department of Ministry of Transportation Reveals Origins of Decision on Naval Escort," Sanlian Life Weekly, January 16, 2009. Prof. Nan Li of Naval War College has identified this source and noted the importance of this information.
9. Chen Guangwen, China’s Coast Guard Capabilities, Ordinance Knowledge, May 2009, pp. 51-52.
10. Lu Wenhui and Ye Xinhu, Research on the Platforms Used in the Xiamen City Illegal Drug Problem, Fujian Police Senior Academy Journal (March 2007), p. 12.
11. Sun Jingping, Notes on Maritime Security Strategy in the New Period for the New Century, China Military Science (June 2008), pp. 77-78.
12. Richard Suttmeier, “China, Safety, and the Management of Risks,” Asia Policy 6 (July 2008), p.131, 133, 143.
13. He Zhonglong et al., Research on the Building of the Chinese Coast Guard, p. 15.