From harassing Filipino fishing boats and monitoring oil exploration off Vietnam to playing cat-and-mouse with the Japan Coast Guard, China’s expanding fleet of civilian patrol vessels have become the enforcers in disputed Asian waters.

The ships of the recently unified Chinese coast guard are a fixture around the disputed islands and shoals of the South and East China seas. While the ships don’t have the weaponry of military vessels, thus reducing the risk a confrontation could get out of control, they still represent a potent show of sovereignty.

The coast guard is funded by China’s State Oceanic Administration, a civilian body, although one U.S. naval officer and security experts said it coordinates its operations with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It includes the 200-strong China Marine Surveillance fleet and is seen as another example of how hard it is to get a true picture of China’s defense-related spending.

China said this week it would increase military spending by 12.2 percent to $131.5 billion in 2014 after a 10.7 percent hike last year. Much spending likely takes place outside the defense budget, however, and many experts estimate real outlays are close to $200 billion, second only to the United States, whose base 2014 defense budget is $526.8 billion.

Neither the budget for the marine surveillance fleet, which includes decommissioned warships, nor the overall coast guard is known.

Premier Li Keqiang told the opening of China’s annual session of parliament Wednesday that the government would enhance border, coastal and air defenses, but he gave no updates on the coast guard’s fleet expansions or operations.

“The maritime surveillance force has been getting a number of new vessels for the last several years, reflecting growing resources and growing importance,” said Dean Cheng of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. “They are large . . . and can help intimidate potential opponents.”

Tensions have grown across Asia as China has become increasingly assertive in pressing its claims to disputed territory.

In the East China Sea, China and Japan are locked in a bitter row over a group of rocky islands administered by Tokyo. China also claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the sea, which sits above potentially rich oil and gas deposits.

Beijing’s civilian fleets now routinely flank both sides of the South China Sea. At times they surround the Scarborough and Second Thomas shoals, which China disputes with the Philippines, or patrol contested waters off southern Vietnam, close to oil exploration blocks leased out by Hanoi.

China’s navy is active across the disputed areas but is increasingly focused on operations beyond China’s near seas.

China sent its sole aircraft carrier, the 60,000-ton Liaoning, on its first training mission into the South China Sea late last year. Beijing bought the Soviet-era ship from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted it in a Chinese shipyard.

But the coast guard is at the sharp end in defending what China sees as its sovereign territory. Chinese media say its ships tend to be armed with water cannons and grappling hooks.

In one of the most recent incidents, Manila protested against the use of water cannons on Filipino fishermen in disputed South China Sea waters Jan. 27. China said it had every right to respond to “provocative” acts.

“What we are seeing now is the PLA navy moving into broader areas of ocean and fine-tuning their operational training, including combat, leaving the civilian fleets to concentrate on the most sensitive areas,” one Asian naval officer said. “It is those fleets that represent the daily assertion of Chinese sovereignty in disputed areas — and we watch them like hawks as a result.”

At the last annual parliament session a year ago, China merged four maritime agencies into a unified coast guard under the State Oceanic Administration.

A recent study by the Tokyo-based National Institute of Defense Studies noted that little was known about the authority and organization of the State Oceanic Administration or its relationship with the PLA.

In total, the coast guard has 370 vessels, according to figures released last month by the independent International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. The state-owned Global Times newspaper has said the China Marine Surveillance fleet, one of the merged entities, alone had more than 200 vessels, nine marine surveillance planes and 8,400 personnel.

Many of the marine surveillance ships are old frigates decommissioned from the PLA navy. In late 2012, Chinese media reported the navy transferred two destroyers to the fleet. China is also building a 10,000-ton maritime surveillance vessel, the world’s largest, the Beijing Times newspaper said last month.

The Japan Coast Guard, the most technologically advanced in the region, has 389 vessels and 25 aircraft, according to IISS. Japanese officials say they are watching the increasing scope and reach of their Chinese counterparts with alarm.

The State Oceanic Administration said last month it would base a 5,000-ton ship on one of the main islands it controls in the Paracel chain of the South China Sea, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

The civilian vessels are playing the role of “antagonist” in the East and South China seas, Capt. James Fanell, director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told a maritime security conference in San Diego last month.

They are “harassing China’s neighbors while PLA naval ships — their protectors — conduct port calls around the region promising friendship and cooperation,” Fanell said. “We have heard many senior PLA officers say the PLA navy and the Chinese coast guard efforts are not coordinated. This is simply not true. This campaign is being meticulously coordinated from Beijing.”


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