Starting July 1, the Chinese coast guard will be under the command of the Armed Police Force (APF), according to a report released by Xinhua, the official Chinese state news agency.
The report was based on an announcement made by the China’s Ministry of National Defense.
The Xinhua report emphasized that the Chinese coast guard will form a division under the APF and “take charge of law enforcement at the sea.”
“The change of command will not alter the basic duties of the Coast Guard nor affect China’s policies about maritime affairs,” the Xinhua report quoted the Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian.
“China will, as always, continue to address disputes peacefully through negotiations with directly involved countries and enhance law enforcement and security cooperation with other countries,” he said.
A report from the website of the Chinese defense ministry offered more details after it was announced that a coast guard vessel operating under military command made its first patrol in the waters of what Beijing named as Diaoyu Islands.
This area is under a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. The Japanese government said the uninhabited islands, called Senkaku in Japan, were part of Japanese territory. Beijing insisted that those islands were part Chinese territory.
The Chinese defense ministry website said the coast guard was now “under the direct administration of the China’s Central Military Commission.” This meant that the coast guard “will now defend the country’s marine rights jointly with the People’s Liberation Army Navy.”
The Chinese defense ministry cited a Xinhua report last June that its coast guard will be “responsible for fighting criminal maritime activities, search and rescue and enforcing laws including maritime resource exploration, environmental protection, fishery management and anti-smuggling efforts.”
The change also meant that Chinese coast guard ships will now be armed with “powerful small diameter cannons instead of water cannons, with crews carrying firearms.”
A military analyst, Lyle Morris, said that Beijing’s move was “arguably one of the most important reforms to take place” since the creation of the Chinese coast guard in 2013.
Morris wrote in a commentary for the website “War on the Rocks” that this development provided the Chinese coast guard more direct links with the Chinese military and gave Beijing a “freer hand to act assertively against regional states during confrontations.”
“The move also sets China’s coast guard apart from all its counterparts in Asia with the exception of Vietnam, by ensuring that the military, not civilian government organs, in China exert control over one of the most important actors involved in sovereignty disputes in the Asia-Pacific,” Morris wrote.
“To some, the timing of such a move might seem inopportune,” Morris added. “After all, China has been assiduously pursuing diplomatic and security initiatives to soften its image in Asia, to include ongoing discussions on a Code of Conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a détente with the Philippines, with which it has significant territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But a closer reading of the history of China’s coast guard reveals a struggle for control between civilian and military command that was never fully settled, setting the stage for the latest military consolidation.”
Morris pointed out that China’s coast guard can now be “officially regard as one of China’s armed forces, capable of executing a variety of law enforcement duties at sea during peace time with possible wartime functions.”
The observation of Morris tied in with the official Chinese defense ministry’s white paper that was released in Singapore a few years ago.
The document from Beijing explained that it was part of Chinese strategy for civilian agencies, facilities, equipment, aircraft and ships to have an official military function. This was published by the Philippines Graphic in an earlier issue
Morris also noted in his commentary that Beijing’s move to put its coast guard under military command will “reinforce perceptions in the region that China’s charm offensive in Southeast Asia is increasingly backed up by potent hard power instruments to coerce countries who choose to test Beijing’s resolve.”