China's new leadership recently announced its intention to reorganize its separate maritime law enforcement agencies under one governing body. State Council Secretary General Ma Kai announced the changes on March 10 at the 12th National People's Congress as part of broad institutional reforms involving the Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Health and the Food and Drug Supervision Administration among others. Ma’s justification for the move was “to solve problems related to inefficient maritime law enforcement, improving the protection and utilization of oceanic resources and better safeguarding the country's maritime rights and interests” (Xinhua, March 12). The restructure signals intent of the part of China’s leaders to create a unified Chinese coast guard by aligning an under-coordinated civilian maritime law enforcement bureaucracy whose vessels are increasingly on the front lines of clashes between China and regional actors in the East and South China Seas.
SOA Takes the Lead, But Who’s in Charge?
Under the plan, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) (guojia haiyang ju), which already manages the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) (zhongguo haijian), will take overall control of the following organizations:
No mention was made of whether the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) (haishi ju), under the Ministry of Transportation, would be folded into the restructure plan.
Most importantly, the SOA will carry out its maritime law enforcement duties under a new agency called the “China Maritime Police Bureau (MPB)” (zhongguo haijing ju).The wording in Chinese has two important implications . First, this is considered to be a renewal project, rather than a replacement, and secondly the focus of the organizations’ duties will be defending maritime rights, which implies territorial protection. In other words, the newly-formed MPB seems to be Beijing’s answer to building a unified Chinese coast guard, albeit with a heavy emphasis on protecting Chinese territory.
The Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) will administer SOA, yet Chinese reporting indicates that the SOA will be responsible for enforcing maritime rights and laws under the “operational direction” of the MPS (Xinhua, March 12). Although the overall authority of MLR and MPS in fashioning SOA policy and strategy is unclear, the SOA’s leadership arrangement suggests strong MPS influence. For example, Meng Hongwei, an MPS vice minister since 2004, was named as the MPB chief and an SOA deputy director in addition to continuing his duties at the MPS. Liu Cigui was named director and party secretary of the SOA as well as political commissar of the MPB (Ministry of Land and Resources, March 19).
The Impetus Behind the Restructure
China's current maritime patrol bodies—of which there are five in total—have evolved from regionally-based maritime agencies to nationally-funded and nationally-controlled organizations. These agencies report to different ministries and have different, sometimes overlapping, missions. Dual responsibilities and turf battles sparked infighting among the rival agencies for funding and relevancy, sometimes manifested in competition for which agency would be the most aggressive in asserting China’s maritime rights in the East and South China Sea. Two recent reports—one by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and another by the International Crisis Group—found that operational ambiguity and duplication of function among the various agencies led to a inefficient maritime law enforcement policy. The Crisis Group report concluded that the current bureaucracy had the potential to stoke tensions and make China’s territorial settlements with neighboring countries more difficult to achieve .
During a press conference with Xinhua, a State Council representative seemed to acknowledge these shortcomings when he said “These [law enforcement] teams each have a unique role. When illicit activity outside of their jurisdiction is encountered during enforcement, there is no way for it to be properly handled, which influences enforcements effectiveness. Each team has set up its own piers, vessels, communications and support systems, creating duplicated construction and wasting resources. Furthermore, each team has duplicate licensing and evaluation. With high costs and low effectiveness, this has increased the burden on enterprises and the masses” (State Oceanic Administration, March 11, 2013). Thus, the move reflects a recognition on the part of Chinese authorities that such a poorly coordinated system was unsustainable and undermining a coherent Chinese maritime strategy.
The Advent of a “State Oceanic Commission”
The restructure plan also calls for establishing a State Oceanic Commission (SOC) (guojia haiyang weiyuanhui), conceived as a high-level consultation and coordinating body on maritime operations. The SOA will “carry out” the Commission’s “specific tasks” (Xinhua, March 12). Despite this civilian orientation, some in the Chinese media and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have suggested that the military may play an active role in the SOC. Yin Zhuo, a navy rear admiral who frequently comments on maritime issues in the Chinese media, suggested in a March 12 article that a state councilor or vice premier would head the SOC and that the Ministry of Defense and/or the PLA Navy also might participate (Nanfang Dushi Bao, March 12). In an interview on CCTV’s Focus Today the following day, Yin surmised that the revamped agency would expand the number of armed fleets of law enforcement ships, which would signal a break from the current status of mostly unarmed civilian patrol vessels (CCTV, March 13). Increased numbers of armed ships, even if not military, would have operational implications for the PLA. Issues of rules of engagement would take on added significance due to the potential for military escalation, which would underscore the need for a civil-military coordination body.
This interagency feel lends credence to some commentators’ suggestions that the SOC would ultimately supersede the SOA in importance. One PRC scholar at the CASS National Institute of International Strategy argued that the SOC would play a more important role in China’s maritime strategy than the SOA by virtue of its “executive authority.” He suggested the SOC could become the “real control center” (zhenzheng zhongqu) coordinating China’s maritime policy and strategy responsible for safeguarding China’s maritime rights and interests (People’s Daily, March 12). Finally, one PLA delegate to the NPC suggested the SOC would be “directly under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee, State Council and CMC” (Wen Wei Po, March 9). Thus, while different in form, the SOC might be similar in function to Leading Small Groups (LSGs), intended to facilitate cross-agency coordination of foreign affairs and national security policy across China’s civilian and military bureaucracies.
The Japanese Radar Incident Highlights China’s Maritime Coordination Issues
On March 17, Kyodo News reported that “senior Chinese military officials” had admitted to reports that a Chinese naval vessel locked its fire control radar on Japanese destroyer. Assuming the sources to be accurate, the report revealed several interesting facts about the incident. The first was that the Chinese naval vessel undertook the radar lock-on action unilaterally without obtaining prior approval from the fleet command or navy headquarters. This highlights a worrisome trend in the command and control structure of China’s navy and gives pause to many in the region who question China’s ability to manage escalation.
More related to China’s maritime agency coordination, however, was the revelation that the January 10 penetration of Japanese airspace by a SOA aircraft was allegedly “planned by the staff section of the National Land and Sea Border Defense Committee.” This committee reportedly facilitates coordination between the military, the SOA and the FLEC. The Chinese officials admitted that the intrusion was part of a military action plan to escalate the conflict, but added they “did not intend to aggravate the situation and do not intend to do so in the future” (Kyodo News, March 17).
The admission, if true, gives outside observers rare insight into the strategy of China’s military and civilian coordination in responding to maritime territorial disputes. Not only does it confirm the fact that China places the execution of its military action plan primarily in the hands of its civilian maritime bodies, but it reveals the existence of an executive national committee, the National Land and Sea Border Defense Committee (NLSBDC), as the oversight authority of the operation.
With the establishment of the SOC, it is likely that its mission during future conflicts would include oversight, or even replacement, of such committees as the NLSBDC. It is reasonable to assume that the real possibility of inadvertent conflict provided Beijing sufficient impetus for the creation of a supra-bureaucracy body with military and civilian coordination. The radar incident involving Chinese military and civilian vessels with a foreign vessel compounded revelations of loose command and control between local and central actors. Recent clashes between Chinese maritime vessels and other countries’ military and fishing vessels—such as during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal and 2009 Impeccable incidents—only have reinforced the need for increased operational and cross-agency cohesion. If properly implemented, the SOC may be a positive step in enhancing control over escalation during future maritime conflicts.
The restructure represents an important effort by Chinese authorities to streamline a poorly-managed maritime law enforcement bureaucracy increasingly involved in China’s maritime territorial disputes. The new measures should enhance the overall efficiency of the maritime law enforcement agencies by reducing redundancy, improving response time, strengthening communications and bolstering overall command and control mechanisms. The plan might even help strengthen China’s ability at controlling escalation, should deliberate incidents occur at sea, by consolidating bureaucratic control. Questions remain, however, over the precise authority of the revamped SOA versus the SOC in coordinating Chinese maritime policy and strategy. The role of the Chinese military in influencing SOA policy and coordination also remains unclear.