China has placed great faith in the unarmed patrol ship as an instrument with which to realize its maritime ambitions. According to a recent U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence report, Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies collectively operate over 200 oceangoing ships, giving the country by far the largest blue water “coast guard” in the world.  Although many of these perform legitimate administrative functions—managing fisheries, enforcing safety regulations, protecting the environment—dozens of others exist almost entirely for the purpose of advancing Chinese claims to waters and territories in the East and South China Seas.
To be sure, China’s MLE fleet is cause for great concern among other claimants. However, fixating on this dramatic indicator of strength risks neglecting other important dimensions of China’s maritime capabilities, including one area of enduring weakness—coast guard aviation. Given the country’s lack of advanced, long-range fixed-wing aircraft, China’s constabulary forces must operate with only a fragmentary picture of the maritime domain. As a result, its MLE forces are unable to maximize the advantages of their colossal new surface fleet. With new aircraft procurement programs and new aviation facilities in remote sections of the South China Sea, Chinese policymakers seem determined to obtain eyes in the skies where they are needed.
“Rights Protection” From the Skies
The primary focus of many of China’s blue water MLE units is performing so-called “rights protection” operations (see China Brief, September 10, 2014). These involve patrolling disputed waters to show administrative presence and impose Chinese jurisdictional prerogatives. Common targets include foreign fishing vessels, law enforcement ships and boats as well as oil/gas exploration ships. In this context, Chinese forces seek both to defend “legitimate” Chinese activities and halt “illegal” foreign activities. Tracking foreign military vessels operating in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and discouraging their operations is another important “rights protection” mission for which Chinese MLE forces are responsible.
In “rights protection” operations, both ships and aircraft play important, but distinct, roles. With their ability to directly impact the behavior of foreign mariners, patrol ships are the main lever of China’s maritime coercion. They forced a standoff with Philippines forces at Scarborough Reef in April 2012 (see China Brief, April 26, 2012). They underwrote the operations of drilling rig HYSY 981 in Vietnamese-claimed waters in May–July 2014 (see China Brief, June 19, 2014). They began blockading the Second Thomas Shoal in early 2014. They routinely sail to the Senkaku Islands to challenge Japanese sovereignty.
Like surface ships, Chinese coast guard aircraft patrol disputed areas to demonstrate, or declare, Chinese authority—that is, for political purposes. But their primary “rights protection” function is indirect. They help to build the picture of the maritime environment needed by front line patrol ship skippers and officers on duty at command centers ashore. They are able to swiftly and cheaply patrol large areas of ocean, monitoring it for foreign activities inimical to Chinese interests, information which can guide commanders’ decisions on how best to deploy surface ships to perform their policing function.
Great coast guards are great both on the sea and above it. Aside from operating swift motor boats and sleek, white cutters, they fly fixed-wing aircraft that can quickly patrol large swaths of the ocean, looking for violations of domestic and international law and searching for mariners in distress, and helicopters which, with their ability to hover and approach at slow speed, are ideal platforms for search-and-rescue missions. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) currently operates over 200 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. These range from the MH-65 dolphin, a helicopter embarked on large cutters, to the 100-foot HC-130J Super Hercules patrol plane (USCG). The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) operates a similar collection of platforms with comparable levels of competence. This is the gold standard of coast guard aviation.
China’s MLE aviation capabilities are incomparably weaker. At present, the China Coast Guard (CCG)—an amalgamation of four formerly unaffiliated agencies currently subject to some degree of joint control by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS)—operates fewer than a dozen aircraft (see China Brief, March 28, 2013). Almost all of these are owned by national-level units of China Marine Surveillance (CMS), one of the four agencies integrated into the new CCG in 2013.
CMS has three aviation units (zhidui), all set up in the early 2000s. One zhidui is located in each geographic region: north (Bohai and Yellow Sea), east (the East China Sea), and south (the South China Sea). Each of these units operates just two fixed-wing aircraft. Thus, the CCG has a mere six airplanes to patrol the entire expanse of three million square kilometers of ocean that China claims (China Ocean News, November 16, 2012), a force entirely incapable of meeting rights protection needs.
The fixed-wing aircraft that it does operate are manifestly inferior platforms. All six are variants of the small, twin-engine turboprop called the Y-12, produced by Hafei Aviation, a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). Their maximum range is 1,300 kilometers (~700 nautical miles) (China Ocean News, March 29, 2011). By comparison, Ocean Sentry (HC-144A), the USCG’s medium-range surveillance maritime patrol craft, has a range of 2,000 nautical miles, and the HC-130J has a range of over 4,300 nautical miles.
The Y-12s operated by CMS have been fitted with specialized, commercial-grade equipment to help them identify and track surface craft. For instance, crew members operate Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers that provide them with information on the identity, speed, position and course of ships transiting Chinese-claimed waters, allowing for more tailored surveillance (China Ocean News, July 26, 2013). When close enough in proximity, CMS aircraft are able to transmit imagery to ships below, which can, if needed, forward them on by satellite communications to land-based command-and-control centers (China Ocean News, March 15, 2013). Nevertheless, the classic image of the CMS officer, camera in hand, peering at a vast expanse of blue out the window of a small, cramped cabin remains accurate.
CMS aviation units gradually received delivery of new fixed and rotary wing aircraft in the early 2000s. In the beginning, their deployments in blue water maritime domain awareness (MDA operations were rare and haphazard. In all of 2004, the fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft of CMS East conducted only 49 flights for 154 total flight hours (China Ocean News, May 23, 2014).
Patrols later became more systematic. The deployment pattern currently in place can be traced to 2006. In that year, SOA received State Council approval to establish a permanent administrative presence in the East China Sea, to improve China’s position in its jurisdictional boundary dispute with Japan. These “regular rights protection law enforcement patrols” (dingqi weiquan xunhang zhifa) involved keeping a certain number of cutters and aircraft at sea every day. In 2007 and 2008, patrols expanded to the remaining parts of China’s claimed waters in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea (China Ocean News, February 22, 2011).
With the advent of the regular rights protection patrol system, aircraft deployments increased dramatically, albeit from a very small base. In 2006, CMS East performed 165 flights, for 664 hours. By 2010, patrols in the East China Sea jumped to 393 flights, for 1,544 hours. This appears to have been peak unit output, for in 2013 the unit recorded 372 total flights, for 1,349 hours. At present, about half of the roughly 30 flights per month are regarded as “rights protection” missions (China Ocean News, May 23, 2014). To put this into perspective, fixed-wing CMS aircraft conduct just 3–4 operations per week above China’s claimed jurisdictional waters in the East China Sea.
The small numbers of East China Sea missions that do take place are limited in duration and geographic scope. While CMS East aircraft can fly out to the edge of China’s claimed continental shelf, their limited range means that they cannot linger. CMS aircraft can fly to the Senkaku Islands, as two notably did in December 2012, but with their short legs they must soon return, having achieved little more than symbolism (China Ocean News, April 11, 2014).
If the problem of coverage is difficult in the East China Sea, it is insuperable in the South China Sea. Operating from airports on the mainland, the two fixed-wing aircraft of CMS South simply cannot reach the eastern and southern sections of the South China Sea. The service’s cutters do sometimes embark helicopters, which provide additional surveillance capabilities. But in general, China’s MLE agencies do not fly in vast sections of waters within the nine-dash line.
The results of this inferiority in maritime aviation is that the CCG must rely heavily on expensive and inefficient means of monitoring the more remote sections of claimed waters. CCG cutters and maritime militia (fishing vessels serving state functions) must constantly remain at sea to, in the words of one CMS officer, “understand what’s going on” (YouTube, January 4, 2014). CMS aircraft do serve a function in MDA operations in jurisdictional waters close to the mainland coast. For instance, it was supposedly a CMS aircraft that first spotted the USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) operating southeast of Hainan in March 2009.  However, according to one fairly recent Chinese account, more than 90 percent of foreign surveillance ships operating in the South China Sea are first detected and reported by Chinese fishermen, a sharp indictment of coast guard aviation, even one allows for hyperbole (Nanfang Zhoumou, July 22, 2011).
In a March 2011 article in an SOA-run newspaper, two journalists described the feeble state of CMS aviation, but suggested that the future held hope: “It has been revealed that by 2015 CMS aviation will see exponential growth, receiving middle- and long-range fixed-wing aircraft with a range of 4,500 km (more than 2,400 nautical miles)” (China Ocean News, March 29, 2011). While this has not happened, there are signs that Chinese policymakers are indeed acting to build and improve the service’s fleet of patrol aircraft.
CCG leaders appear to be in the market for new airplanes. In November 2014, Rear Admiral Wang Qiuyu, Director of the CCG’s Armaments Department, visited an AVIC subsidiary in Xi’an to discuss purchases of a maritime patrol variant of that firm’s MA-60 (AVIC Website, November 21, 2014). This aircraft is already operated by civilian airlines in China and abroad. A coast guard version would have double or triple the range of the current Y-12 and would likely carry advanced ocean monitoring equipment. While still unconfirmed, it is also possible that the CCG will purchase several of AVIC’s enormous AG-600 sea planes, the prototype of which is currently under construction: AVIC executive Huang Lingcai suggested in an interview that the aircraft could be used to protect China’s “maritime rights and interests,” code for naval and/or coast guard procurement (China Daily, April 28). With its 4,500-km range, AG-600 would be able to patrol all of China’s claimed waters in the South China Sea from civilian airports on the mainland.
At the same time that they ponder purchases of large patrol craft, China’s coast guardsmen await deliveries of more advanced variants of the Y-12. In March 2015, Rear Admiral Yang Juan, Deputy Director of the CCG, visited Hafei Aviation offices in Harbin to receive briefings on that firm’s progress toward completion of rotary-and-fixed wing aircraft, including an unspecified number of Y-12Fs. This variant, while still less capable than the patrol craft of the USCG and JCG, supposedly has far greater carrying capacity and range than versions currently in service with CMS (AVIC Website, March 9).
Basing patrol craft closer to disputed waters and territories is another means of keeping more aircraft aloft where they are needed. In 2014, Chinese contractors began large-scale operations to expand island installations on several of the country’s seven occupied land features in the Spratly Archipelago. At least one of these features, Fiery Cross Reef, will host a runway. Most analysts focus on the military value of these new facilities, in particular, the likelihood that they will underpin a South China Sea ADIZ (The National Interest, April 27). However, this feature, or another like it, may also host aircraft of the CCG, which, if it happens, would enable the service to achieve the MDA it so desperately craves in these waters.
In sum, the CCG, as currently constituted, is a brawny, but half-blind, MLE force. It is capable of maintaining large numbers of cutters at sea, but its lack of advanced, long-range patrol aircraft prevents the service from maximizing the coercive potential of its surface assets. With its new procurement programs and bases in disputed waters, China is striving to remedy this weakness. If it succeeds, it will be a big step closer to actualizing its maritime claims and building the formidable coast guard it thinks it deserves.
- The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, Office of Naval Intelligence, April 2015.
- China’s Ocean Development Report (2011), Ocean Press, Beijing, 2011, p. 490.