Non-Military Escalation: China Cultivates New Heft in Civil Maritime Forces

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 23

One of China's New Large Cutters, Haixun 01

While the initial testing of China’s first aircraft carrier has garnered headlines around the globe, comparatively less attention has been focused on a potentially significant new exercise of Chinese maritime might—that of its civil maritime agencies. Within that domain, a somewhat unusual maritime exercise took place in the East China Sea last month.

The exercise involved naval forces, including a frigate, towing vessel and the hospital ship Peace Ark as well as several vessels from China’s various civil maritime agencies. Eight aircraft also participated in the exercise (Xinhua, October 19). At first glance, the exercise could be disturbing. If China’s civil maritime agencies are linked ever more closely with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and these forces are deployed more and more frequently to contested waters around China’s periphery, the trend could suggest a shorter and more direct path to open hostilities.

Such a conclusion, however, would be premature. Given the available information on this exercise and also the larger context for the development of China’s civil maritime forces, this anxiety appears to overstate the threat. Beijing is wielding new muscles in the maritime domain and these actions may have genuine strategic effects; however, it is essential to keep in mind that China’s deployment of civilian “white hulls” rather than navy “grey hulls” to these delicate situations reflects, first and foremost, a conviction that Beijing will not act first to militarize these disputes.

From Youth to Adolescence

The rise of China’s civil maritime agencies is all the more remarkable given how primitive and nascent they were just a decade ago. Compared to the Japan Coast Guard—the most pervasive standard of comparison at least within China—these forces are still comparatively small, lacking in sophistication and quite obviously in experience as well. Nevertheless, Beijing’s announcement in 2010 that civil maritime forces would build 30 large cutters over five years put strategic analysts on notice and there has been no evident slacking in this build rate—one that coast guard personnel in any nation would envy (China News Service, October 11, 2010).

Indeed, shiny, new large cutters have appeared every couple of months since that announcement. To take but one example, the Haixun 01, was launched by the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) of the Transport Ministry this July. At over 5,418 tons, large even by comparison to the other recently-built large cutters (generally about 3,000 tons), the multi-functional vessel probably is indicative of Beijing’s larger ambitions to wield a first-rate coast guard force. While MSA is the least militarized of the Chinese civil maritime agencies, the MSA vice director commented at the time of the vessel’s launch that among its missions would be the objective of “safeguarding China’s sovereignty” (People’s Net, July 28). It is difficult to find comprehensive current data across all of China’s civil maritime agencies, but some perspective on the overall growth of forces is suggested by the fact that the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), which is far from the most capable of China’s civil maritime agencies, has well over 2,000 vessels of various types with 140 oceangoing cutters and eight vessels over 1,000 tons, according to a recent official report [1].

One of the overarching problems facing Chinese civil maritime enforcement is the fractured nature of its capabilities. Jurisdiction, expertise and capabilities are divided among five or more agencies leading to inefficiency and a broader perception of weakness that Chinese maritime analysts themselves have long bemoaned [2]. While there was apparently some possibility that this could be resolved at the 17th Party Congress, the issue of reform and the hypothetical grand unification of the disparate elements seems no longer to be a serious possibility at least for the near and medium term [3]. Rather, China’s system of balkanized agencies that constitute Chinese maritime enforcement “with Chinese characteristics” seems set to continue on, even if some apparently provincial-level entities, encompassing local Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) units of the Ministry of Agriculture and maritime Border Control Department (BCD; sometimes called “China Coast Guard”) units of the Ministry of Public Security have been unified for practical purposes [4]. The fractured nature of Chinese maritime governance has spawned theories among Western strategists that Beijing is either intentionally or unintentionally allowing the hydra-headed dragon that constitutes China’s contemporary coast guard capability to further obfuscate an already opaque approach with respect to volatile maritime claims.

The important new development on this front is the major deployment of Chinese civil maritime vessels directly into the waters surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands during September, prompting the start of a crisis in China-Japan relations that has continued, more or less, to the present time (“China and Japan Turn the Screw over Island Dispute,” China Brief, September 21). Apparently, 12 Chinese cutters from China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) were sortied to the disputed area in the East China Sea in mid-September (Global Times, September 19). This prompted a major counter deployment by the Japan Coast Guard, such that half of its vessels were said to be deployed to the disputed islands—a truly extraordinary set of measures on both sides (Asahi Shimbun, September 19). To make this “coast guard crisis” even more complex given the somewhat bewildering array of large vessels in such a small area, Taiwanese coast guard vessels appeared on the scene and engaged Japanese cutters in a “battle” with water cannons (Global Times, September 25). Preliminary evidence does suggest the PLA, including the Chinese Navy, supports the deployment of Chinese civil maritime vessels into these disputed areas [5]. A larger question to ask concerns how and whether this seeming escalation, albeit non-military, is related to the 18th Party Congress, and does it heralds a more hard-edged approach to diplomacy by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping?

Creeping Militarization

The maritime exercise in the East China Sea last month that combined naval and civil maritime forces is not the first exercise of this type. Actually, similar exercises were reported in the summer of 2009 and also in the spring of 2011 [6]. The former, which was widely publicized in the official PLA Navy magazine, took place in the Pearl River Delta and featured involvement by 13 various departments and agencies with the participation of 25 vessels and some aircraft as well [7].

Among China’s disparate coast guard-like entities, only BCD vessels have been visibly armed with deck guns. By contrast, FLEC, CMS and MSA vessels have not traditionally been armed. Of course, this marks a major contrast between these various forces and counterparts in the Japanese, or U.S. coast guards. In Chinese sources, “weaponization” (wuzhuanghua), however, has been identified as a major trend for the various components of Chinese maritime enforcement including the FLEC [8]. The same report offers detailed plans regarding how Chinese fisheries cutters might be “re-outfitted” in wartime to carry a towed array sonar, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) torpedoes and even an ASW helicopter (“Beijing Confronts Long-Standing Weakness in Anti-Submarine Warfare,” China Brief, July 29, 2011). Such a complexion for elements of China’s civil maritime capabilities would not be outside the norm for major coast guards, but is still suggestive of a possible worrying departure from China’s current policy of patrols by unarmed ships.

Recent reports regarding CMS also suggest that this particular civil maritime agency is employing a wide array of new sensor technologies. While the State Oceanic Agency that controls CMS has long been involved with maritime reconnaissance satellites, the agency apparently now is finalizing plans to “build bases for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 11 coastal regions” (Global Times, October 22). It also seems likely that CMS will increase the quantity and quality of its manned air patrols as well, possibly with a fleet of new and capable maritime patrol aircraft. If Beijing succeeds in employing such non-military assets to significantly increase its “maritime domain awareness” (MDA) in its proximate waters, these new capabilities could have strategic effects and thus bear close watching. Although Chinese military strategists are studying such tactics as bumping by Soviet naval ships during the late Cold War, it is also noteworthy that a 2012 study by PLA Navy authors in the prestigious official journal Military Science that examines Chinese naval strategy “under the new situation” makes absolutely no mention of the Chinese civil maritime capabilities, suggesting Chinese maritime strategy is less well integrated than is often believed [9].

Civil Maritime Restraint and Opportunity

A closer look at the details of the October joint PLA and civil maritime exercise in the East China Sea does not seem to suggest belligerent intent. The two obvious themes that emerged in the exercise were salvage, on the one hand, and search and rescue, on the other. The implication seems to be that Beijing is quite concerned lest one of its ships were damaged as part of the augmented civil maritime patrol pattern [10].

In calibrating the proper response to Beijing’s non-military escalation of maritime disputes around its periphery, wisdom and prudence suggest such developments be viewed within a larger political and economic context. First, China’s full development of strong civil maritime capabilities is natural given its maritime trading prowess and the trend is also broadly positive for global commerce. The shipping lanes of East Asia are among the busiest in the world and all mariners, shipping companies and trading nations should applaud enhanced Chinese rescue, salvage and maritime law enforcement capabilities. Second, China’s high pattern of exercises reflects a genuine desire to increase professional competence. Indeed, two interesting maritime rescue exercises took place this September: coping with a downed airliner off Shanghai (which featured the floating of a real airplane) and also a simulated PLA Navy-MSA rescue of naval personnel from a stricken East Sea Fleet submarine (Global Times, September 27). Such exercises are increasingly routine and are completely non-threatening. Even with respect to possible new surveillance activities that could impact objectively the military balance on the margins, analysts should concede China’s desire to increase MDA off its coasts is wholly natural and to be expected.

Finally, it is also worth noting the non-military and highly practical functionality of coast guards enables them to be superb tools for building international cooperation. Indeed, the fact that a major coast guard drill involving 27 vessels between Taiwan forces and those of China occurred this August regrettably went quite unnoticed, but must be considered a significant blow for peace in the East China Sea area (Want China Times, September 2). The North Pacific Coast Guard Forum continues to hold major promise for regional maritime security.

The East China Sea Vortex

The maritime security situation in the East China Sea, tracking the general course of deteriorating China-Japan relations, has gone from bad to worse. Chinese analysts are increasingly pessimistic. One recent Chinese scholarly paper observes that U.S. policy has shifted since 2009 from “ambiguous neutrality” to “small scale intervention” and finally to “emphatic support” for the Japanese claim. According to this analysis, these moves demonstrate Washington’s intention to return to the Cold War strategy of the “island chain blockade strategy…in order to contain China’s rise and damage the strategic environment for China’s development” [11]. Chinese military strategists are increasingly bellicose, as for example a PLA Navy Captain who recently and accusingly wrote “The United States is at fault for the chaotic situation in the Diaoyu Islands” [12].

From the other side of the world, it seems quite ridiculous that Asia’s two greatest powers would contemplate war over some rocks with goats for inhabitants, as suggested by the sardonic Economist cover of September 22. Columnist Nicholas Kristof opined recently: “In reality, of course, there is zero chance that [Washington] will honor its treaty obligation over a few barren rocks. We’re not going to risk a nuclear confrontation with China over some islands that may well be China’s” (New York Times, September 10).


Cautious policies, not least in Washington, are now required to lower the possibility of military conflict in the East China Sea. Such policies may begin from the premise that the unarmed “white hulls” of China’s civil maritime enforcement agencies do not constitute any kind of significant threat to Japan’s security, much less that of the United States. Given China’s growing power and nationalism, Beijing’s evolving policy of “non-military escalation” is actually far better than the alternative. U.S. diplomats should engage actively to try to facilitate a creative process to make substantive progress in improving China-Japan relations. Such progress will be one of the key pillars of global security for this century and beyond.


  1. Yin He, “Zhongguo jinhai zhifa liliang” [Development of China’s Littoral Law Enforcement Force and Its Equipment],” Jianzai wuqi [Shipborne Weapons], March 2011, p. 20.
  2. See, for example, He Zhonglong] Zhongguo hai’an jingweidui zucheng yanjiu [Research on the Creation of a Chinese Coast Guard], Beijing: Ocean Press, 2007, p. 41.
  3. Author’s Interview in Qingdao, China, 2009.
  4. Author’s Interview in Qingdao, China, 2011.
  5. See, for example, Sun Jingping, “Xin shiji xin jieduan haishang anquan zhanlue duanxiang [Notes on Maritime Security Strategy in the New Period in the New Century],” Zhongguo junshi kexue [China Military Science], June 2008, p. 77.
  6. “Lianhe Haishang Soujiu he Fankong Yanxi [Joint maritime SAR and anti-terrorism exercises]” Xiandai jianchuan [Modern Ships] (May 2011), p. 10.
  7. Cao Xuejun, “Huangjin shuidao: shangyan liti da soujiu [The Golden Sea Route: A Large Three-Dimensional Search and Rescue is Undertaken ],” Dangdai haijun [Modern Navy], July 2009, pp. 10–12.
  8. Yin He, “Zhongguo jinhai zhifa liliang [Development of China’s Littoral Law Enforcement Force and Its Equipment],” Jianzai wuqi [Shipborne Weapons], March 2011, p. 24.
  9. Xiao Feng and Wang Wei, “Pengzhuang chengshou zhi zhong [The Enduring Importance of Bumping],” Bingqi zhishi [Ordnance Knowledge], November 2012, pp. 21–23; Liu Yonghong and Tang Fuquan, “Xin xingshi xia haijun zhuanxing jianshe de zhanlue sikao [Strategic Thinking on Constructing Naval Transformation under New Conditions],” Zhongguo junshi kexue [China Military Science], September/October 2012, pp. 58–66.
  10. Thank you to my colleague Professor Nan Li for providing these insights.
  11. Xiao Chuanguo, “Diaoyudao zhuangchuan shijianhou riben de zhanlue zouxiang [Japan’s Strategic Direction After the Diaoyu Island ‘Ship Bumping Incident’],” Riben yanjiu [Japan Studies], March 2011, pp. 72–77.
  12. Li Jie, “Diaoyudao luanju de zhengjie zai meiguo” [The U.S. Is at Fault for the Chaotic Situation in the Diaoyu Islands],” Xiandai jianchuan [Modern Ships], October 2012, p. 52.