This month it became official, the new, larger, and more heavily armed Chinese Coast Guard is officially in business. Earlier this year China announced that it was combining four of its five maritime police organizations into one new outfit: the Coast Guard Bureau (or China/Chinese Coast Guard). This is actually the old China Marine Surveillance (or CMS, which belonged to a civilian outfit: the Ministry of Land and Resources) that is taking over the Coast Guard (belonging to the Public Security Ministry), the fisheries police (of the Agriculture Ministry), and the maritime anti-smuggling police (of the General Administration of Customs). China had multiple coastal patrol organizations because it was the custom in communist dictatorships to have more than one security organization doing similar tasks, so each outfit could keep an eye on the other and ensure loyalty. This was inefficient and confusing, thus the consolidation. For the last few months hundreds of ships have been repainted. Some of these ships had heavier armament installed, as the coast guard is a paramilitary outfit while some of the older outfits were sea-going police.
This reorganization reflects the favorite Chinese tactic for asserting its claims to control most of the South China Sea by avoiding the use of military vessels. Instead it sends out these “police” ships to harass and threaten foreign ships operating in what international law considers the high seas but that China considers its territorial waters. If any of these intruders call in warships, then China will defend itself by calling its own warships and aircraft and protest this act of foreign aggression.
As part of this policy this year China began enforcing new rules that have Chinese coast guard vessels escorting, or expelling, foreign ships from most of the South China Sea. This move has generated a lot of resistance from the neighbors. At the time China announced that it was not planning on having grey painted navy ships do the intercepting and harassing but white painted coast guard vessels. White paint and slanted vertical red stripes on the hull are an internationally recognized way to identify coast guard ships. Coast Guard vessels are considered much less threatening than warships. China also calls in civilian vessels (owners of these privately owned ships understand that refusing to help is not an option) to get in the way of foreign ships the coast guard wants gone. Thus, if foreign warships open fire to try and scare away these harassing vessels they become the bad guys.
CMS was the most recent of these maritime police agencies, having been established in 1998. It was actually the police force for the Chinese Oceanic Administration, which was (and still is) responsible for surveying non-territorial waters that China has economic control over (the exclusive economic zones or EEZ) and for enforcing environmental laws in its coastal waters. The CMS already had 10,000 personnel, 300 vessels, and ten aircraft before it was incorporated in the new coast guard.
When there is an armed confrontation over contested islands in the South China Sea it was usually CMS patrol boats that are frequently described as "Chinese warships." The CMS and the other coastal police forces had several hundred large ships (over 1,000 tons, including several that are over 3,000 tons) and thousands of smaller patrol boats. China is also building small bases in the disputed islands that can serve as home port for the small patrol boats. It should be noted that many of these patrol vessels are designed to be equipped with heavier weapons (missiles, torpedoes) in wartime and some are getting this stuff now as they are repainted as coast guard vessels.
The current consolidation of Chinese maritime police forces is mostly about the the exclusive economic zones or EEZ and patrolling it more frequently and aggressively. International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. However, the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the EEZ of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has already claimed that foreign ships have been conducting illegal espionage in their EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control.
For the last two centuries China has been prevented from exercising its "traditional rights" in nearby waters because of the superior power of foreign navies (first the cannon armed European sailing ships, then, in the 19th century, newly built steel warships from Japan). However, since the communists took over China 60 years ago, there have been increasingly violent attempts to reassert Chinese control over areas that have long (for centuries) been considered part of the "Middle Kingdom" (or China, as in the "center of the world").
China is particularly concerned about the nearby Spratlys, a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous underwater oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel. China claims them all but occupies only 8, Vietnam has occupied or marked 25, the Philippines 8, Malaysia 6, and Taiwan one.
China prefers to use non-military or paramilitary ships (like those of the new coast guard) to harass foreign ships it wants out of the EEZ or disputed waters. This approach is less likely to spark an armed conflict and makes it easier for the Chinese to claim they were the victims. These claims of being a victim come across as a bad joke to China’s neighbors. That’s because the new rules mean offshore areas of the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and Vietnam that international law does not recognize as Chinese are now formally claimed by China. India and the United States have both announced that they will not obey and that Indian and American warships expect to move unmolested through the South China Sea in 2013.