Early Warning Brief: Introducing the “New, New” China Coast Guard

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 2

Image: China Coast Guard ship 5204 visits Manila Port in the Philippines on January 14 while participating in the third meeting of the China – Philippines Coast Guard Maritime Cooperation Joint Committee (Image source: PRC Ministry of Defense).


In the past decade, the China Coast Guard (CCG, 中国海警, zhongguo haijing) has experienced two major reforms. The first, which began in 2013, uprooted the service from the Ministry of Public Security—where it was organized as an element of the People’s Armed Police (PAP)—and placed it under the control of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), a civilian agency. In the process, the CCG was combined with three other maritime law enforcement forces: China Marine Surveillance (CMS), China Fisheries Law Enforcement (CFLE), and the maritime anti-smuggling units of the General Administration of Customs. The resulting conglomerate was colloquially called the “new” CCG, differentiating it from the “old” CCG of the Ministry of Public Security years. The second reform began in 2018, when the “new” CCG, now swollen with the ranks of four different forces, was stripped from the SOA and transferred to the PAP, which itself had just been reorganized and placed under the Central Military Commission (CMC) (China Brief, April 24, 2018).

While much research has been done on the first reform, little is known about the second, at least in the English-speaking world. This article seeks to answer basic questions about the “new, new” CCG. What are its roles/missions, organization, and force structure? How does it differ from the CCG of the SOA years? How is it similar? What progress has been made two years after the second reform began?

The Roles and Missions of the (New, New) CCG

The “new, new” CCG has a dual identity. On the one hand, it is a component of China’s “armed forces” (武装力量, wuzhuang liliang). Its personnel wear camouflage working uniforms, are divided into officers and enlisted, seek promotion according to a system of ranks/grades, and operate vessels classified as “warships” (舰, jian). On the other hand, the CCG is also a domestic law enforcement force. It enforces Chinese criminal and administrative law in areas under its jurisdiction, which includes the mainland coast and all three million km2 of Chinese-claimed ocean space. Its law enforcement authorities were recently defined in the country’s first Coast Guard Law, which was adopted by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on January 22 and will be promulgated on February 1 (PRC Coast Guard Law, January 23).

The “new, new” CCG’s missions are basically unchanged from the SOA years (Xinhua, June 23, 2018):

  • Fighting crime at sea
  • Maintaining maritime security
  • Supporting the development and exploitation of marine resources
  • Protecting the marine environment
  • Managing fisheries
  • Suppressing maritime smuggling activities

Conspicuously absent is maritime search and rescue, which officially falls under the purview of other agencies—though in practice the CCG does conduct emergency rescue operations (Renminwang, December 27, 2019).

Together, these missions are defined as “rights protection law enforcement” (维权执法, weiquan zhifa). Indeed, this is the overarching purpose of the CCG. It is symbolized by one of three stripes on the PAP service flag (Xinhua, January 11, 2018) and codified in the recently-revised People’s Armed Police Law (PRC Ministry of Justice, June 20, 2020). Before 2018, “rights protection law enforcement” narrowly referred to efforts to defend China’s claimed maritime rights in the face of foreign encroachment. Today it encompasses everything the service does. [1]

During the SOA years, the CCG was China’s primary maritime law enforcement force operating in disputed space. This has not changed. Since 2018, the “new, new” CCG has spearheaded major sovereignty enforcement operations, especially in the South China Sea where it has buttressed Beijing’s unlawful claim to resource rights on the basis of the “nine-dash line.” It has escorted Chinese research vessels conducting seismic surveys in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, along the line’s western boundary (AMTI, December 13, 2019); intimidated Malaysia for exploiting seabed resources in its own exclusive economic zone, near the line’s southeastern boundary (AMTI, November 25, 2020); and shepherded Chinese fishers as they trawled for fish in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, along the line’s southern boundary (The Jakarta Post, January 1, 2020).

Image: A China Coast Guard ship is seen from an Indonesian naval ship during a patrol in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone on January 11, 2020 (Image source: SCMP).

But the “new” CCG was not, and the “new, new” CCG is not, the only Chinese maritime law enforcement force on the sovereignty beat. Local-level CMS and CFLE organizations—funded and managed by provincial and municipal governments—remained intact after 2013. The “new” CCG was charged with “guiding and coordinating” their activities (Government of the PRC, June 9, 2013), an arrangement that did not work well.[2] Local-level law CMS and CFLE units have thus far survived the second reform, their relationship with the CCG seemingly as ill-defined as ever (Xinhua, June 23, 2018), and they have retained their dozens of large, oceangoing cutters.

Some of these ships operate in disputed space. For example, from December 2019 to January 2020, the Yuzheng 45005—a 1,764 tonne(t) cutter operated by Guangxi CFLE—conducted a 57-day mission to the Spratly waters where it “safeguarded national maritime rights and interests and the security of the lives and property of Chinese fisher folk” (Guangxi Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, January 20, 2020) The circumstances of the mission suggest Yuzheng 45005 was among several cutters escorting Chinese fishers as they operated in waters northeast of Natuna Besar, where Indonesia’s EEZ boundary overlaps with the nine-dash line (The Jakarta Post, December 29, 2019). Local-level CFLE forces also help the CCG enforce China’s annual fishing moratorium. During the 2020 moratorium, the combined force “expelled” (驱离, quli) 1,138 foreign fishers from Chinese-claimed spaced, boarded 73 foreign fishing boats (impounding 11 of them), and detained 66 foreign fishers (Renminwang, September 28, 2020).

Organizational Structure

The “new, new” CCG retains many of the organizational elements of its predecessor. At the center is the CCG Bureau in Beijing. It is currently led by Rear Admiral Wang Zhongcai (王仲才), a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface warfare officer (Zhongguowang, November 18, 2019). In 2017, Wang commanded the PLAN’s 26th escort task force during its eight-month deployment to the Gulf of Aden (and beyond). The Bureau’s Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Zhang Chunru (张春儒), a career CCG officer, is noteworthy for being one of the few senior officers to survive the failed first reform (Beijing News, December 9, 2019).

The CCG Bureau oversees three regional branch bureaus (海区分局, haiqu fenju): north, east, and south, located respectively in Qingdao, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Within their respective regions, these bureaus direct operations involving forces from different units, such as rescue operations (Huanqiu, August 22, 2020) and the annual fishing moratorium (The Paper, May 2, 2019); they coordinate the work of local-level maritime law enforcement forces (Lianyungang City Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, September 18, 2020); and they provide training opportunities (Dalian Ocean University, December 24, 2020). Today, all three regional branches are led by PLAN officers, a peculiarity that begs further investigation (Sohu, May 18, 2019; Legal Daily, April 30, 2019; Guangdong Department of Agriculture, August 2, 2019).

Subordinate to the regional branch bureaus are 11 provincial-level CCG bureaus (省级海警局, shengji haijing ju). Beneath them are municipal-level CCG bureaus (市级海警局, shiji haijing ju) and CCG work stations (工作站, gongzuo zhan), in a descending chain of command. Analysis of content published by the CCG Wechat account suggests that the provincial and municipal CCG bureaus are assigned a largely coastal mission set: everything from interdicting smugglers to preventing the illegal mining of sea sand. They appear only to operate boats and small cutters (under 1,000t).

As during the SOA period, cutters owned by provincial-level (and below) CCG bureaus have five-digit pennant numbers. Also as before, the first two digits designate the province, autonomous region, or directly-administered city where the units are based. But the specific designators changed after 2018. See Table 1 for the current designators.

Table 1. Pennant Number Format for Cutters Owned by Local-level CCG Bureaus

Province/City Pennant # Format
Jiangsu 11***
Shanghai 12***
Zhejiang 13***
Fujian 14***
Guangdong 21***
Guangxi 22***
Hainan 23***
Liaoning 31***
Heibei 32***
Tianjin 33***
Shandong 34***

Regional CCG bureaus oversee a total of six so-called “directly subordinate bureaus” (直属局, zhishi ju): one in the north, two in the east, and three in the south. They appear to own most (if not all) of the service’s large cutters and undertake the bulk of all sovereignty enforcement operations. This apparently includes the CCG’s newest and most lethal cutters; six 4,000t Zhaoduan-class and nine 2,700t Zhaojun-class vessels, had been operated by local-level CCG units during the SOA years.[3]

Vessels owned by the directly subordinate bureaus have four digits. The first digit designates the number of the bureau to which the ship belongs. The second digit indicates ship displacement (5=5,000t, 4=4,000t, etc.). The other two digits are sequential. Thus, for example, vessel number 4303 is a 3,000t-class cutter operated by the 4th directly subordinate bureau, located in Wenchang, Hainan. Photos reveal it to be a Zhaoyu-class ship. It, along with a second CCG cutter (22603), recently accompanied two Vietnamese coast guard vessels on a joint patrol of the Gulf of Tonkin (Xinhua, December 25, 2020). Based on that ship’s pennant number and Chinese news footage, it is a 650t Type 618B-II cutter owned by a local-level CCG bureau in Guangxi (Weibo, December 26, 2020). Table 2 lists the locations of the CCG’s six directly subordinate bureaus and their associated ship pennant number formats.

Table 2. Locations of the CCG’s Directly Subordinate Bureaus with Pennant Number Formats

Bureau Location Pennant # Format
1st Shanghai 1***
2nd Ningbo, Zhejiang 2***
3rd Guangzhou, Guangdong 3***
4th Wenchang, Hainan 4***
5th Sanya, Hainan 5***
6th Qingdao 6***

Conclusion: Getting it Right the Second Time

The first CCG reform was an abject failure. After five years, the “new” CCG had not become a unified service. It remained four organizations loosely united under a single name, each retaining its original identity, missions, and culture. While the reform likely improved coordination between them, it never resulted in the promised synergies. And there was no hope that it would. To cite an April 2018 article published in one of the CCG’s own periodicals, five years after the reform began the CCG was “at a standstill” (停滞不前, tingzhi buqian)…not because it did not want to move forward, but because it could not move forward.”[4]

The 2018 reform has been far more successful. At a September 2020 meeting chaired by the Political Commissar of the PAP, An Zhaoqing (安兆庆), participants hailed the “great improvements” in the two years since the CCG’s rebirth under the PAP.[5] This was not empty praise. Today, the CCG has a single identity: everyone works for the PAP. Just having all of its personnel belong to a single organization is far more than was ever achieved during the first reform. Today, there are no doubts about who is in charge. SOA not only lost custody of the CCG; it ceased to exist as an organization (Xinhua, March 21, 2018). In 2018, most of its civilian researchers and administrators were re-assigned to the Ministry of Natural Resources—which has renounced any role in maritime law enforcement (Sohu, December 14, 2019). Unlike its predecessor, the “new, new” CCG is being provided with the legal framework crucial to its development as a professional force. This includes a February 2020 notice issued by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate defining the CCG’s jurisdiction in maritime criminal cases (Xinhua, February 28, 2020) and, most recently, the new Coast Guard Law.

Of course, the reform is far from complete. In the words of the CCG’s Political Commissar, Wang Liangfu (王良福), the service’s “foundational work has only just begun” and it continues to face many “real contradictions and difficulties.”[6] Indeed, just having a unified force does not make it a good force. At the September 2020 meeting cited above, An Zhaoqing tempered his praise for the CCG, declaring that “when assessed in the context of the larger military system, [its] foundation remains relatively weak and [its] standards remain relatively low.” Using the idiom of the “new era,” he acknowledged that a gap still existed between current realities and the “expectations of Chairman Xi with respect to reshaping and restructuring” the CCG.[7]


[1] Mao Chenyu, “Definition of the Concept of ‘Rights Protection Law Enforcement’ and Future Prospects,” Journal of Dalian Maritime University (Social Science Edition), vol. 19, no. 1 (February 2020), pp. 17-18.

[2] Dong Jiawei, “Analysis of the Path Forward for Reconstruction of China’s Law Enforcement System,” Journal of China Maritime Police Academy, vol. 17, no. 1 (February 2018), p. 14.

[3] Andrew S. Erickson, Joshua Hickey, and Henry Holst, “Surging Second Sea Force: China’s Maritime Law-Enforcement Forces, Capabilities, and Future in the Gray Zone and Beyond, Naval War College Review: Vol. 72 : No. 2  (2019), pp. 9-16.

[4] Li Lin, “On the Reform and Development Goals of China’s Maritime Law Enforcement Forces,” Journal of China Maritime Police Academy, vol. 17, no. 2 (April 2018), p. 6.

[5] Li Haiyuan, “Armed Police Force Party Committee Inspection and Patrol Work Leading Small Group Holds Meeting, An Zhaoqing Chairs and Gives Speech,” People’ Armed Police, October 1, 2020, p. 1.

[6] “Excerpts from the Speeches of Armed Police Corps and Division Leader Grade Leader Cadres Theoretical Training and the Third Quarter Party Committee Central Group with Organ Theoretical Study,” People’s Armed Police, September 8, 2020, p. 2.

[7] Li, “Armed Police Force Party Committee Inspection and Patrol Work Leading Small Group Holds Meeting.”