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“The power of the China Coast Guard is limited, but the power of the people is infinite,” said Chen Jiang, the president of Hainan Province Association for Development of Maritime Industry in the South China Sea at the body’s inauguration ceremony on June 8, 2018, in Haikou, located on China’s southeastern tip overlooking the South China Sea.

With the aim of accomplishing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s goal of making the country a “strong maritime power,” the association was established with the approval of the central government. The Chinese Communist Party’s Hainan Provincial Committee and the provincial government founded it, calling on entrepreneurs and other people concerned to support organizing the fisheries industry and develop the maritime economy.

“The association will act in line with the government’s industrial programs. We will actively work to protect our rights and interests in the South China Sea,” Chen, also a member of the province’s political consultative conference, said at the ceremony. “In that way, we will change the South China Sea to become the sea of peace.”

Hainan’s new decision is in line with Xi’s policy, revealed in 2015, to elevate military-civil fusion to be a national strategy.

The following year, the Chinese Communist Party was putting together its Opinion on the Integrated Development of Economic and National Defense Constructions, when on July 12 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague rejected Beijing’s so-called nine-dash line and historical rights claims in the South China Sea.

The opinion, released nine days after the ruling, provided new directions: “Coordinate maritime development and maritime rights protection altogether and promote and implement the strategy of strong maritime power. … Strengthen operational capabilities and safeguard infrastructure construction, and accelerate formation of a new situation in which the party, government, military, police and people work together to secure the border.”

Starting that year, China conducted a drastic reform of its fisheries industry, largely exceeding efforts necessary to maintain sustainable fishing.

Medium- and large-size fishing boats were put under the control of the central authorities. Smart technologies were equipped at fishing ports for surveillance of the fishing industry.

The vessel monitoring system (VMS) evolved dramatically, enabling close two-way communication between fishing vessels and authorities, and making it easier for the authorities to offer rewards to fishermen and women who followed their instructions.

A comprehensive data platform linking land and sea was also constructed owing to the fast progress of the maritime application of the nation’s satellite observation and communication network centered on its Beidou satellites.

In parallel, Xi also strengthened political education for Communist Party members and citizens in the country.

For the Communist Party, which has fought with major powers using guerrilla tactics, it is both orthodox and reasonable to use a large number of civilians, especially fishermen and women, in tackling maritime conflicts.

In Hainan province, which is at the forefront of the maritime military-civil fusion, authorities are organizing fishermen and women to get rid of other countries’ influence in the South China Sea for the sake of developing China’s maritime economy as described above.

Considering the China coast guard law that took effect in February, such actions are highly likely to become a nationwide movement.

The China coast guard law states that the law applies to coast guard organizations carrying out maritime rights protection activities “in and above the waters under the jurisdiction of China.”

China uses the term “jurisdictional waters” to describe its territorial sea, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the sea above the continental shelf and waters within the nine-dash line it claims. The outer edge of the “jurisdictional waters” mostly overlaps with the so-called first island chain, which stretches from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan to the Philippines.

In reality, about half of the area is contested by other countries. But the China coast guard law stipulates that the China Coast Guard is responsible for “managing and protecting maritime boundaries.”

From now on, the China Coast Guard is tasked with securing China’s effective control over all of its claimed jurisdictional waters without waiting for any diplomatic demarcation.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not grant coastal states rights in the airspace over their EEZ or the continental shelf. But the China Coast Guard will perform its duties as though China has such rights based on the China coast guard law.

New division of tasks

The China coast guard law indicates a new division of tasks regarding management of the sea.

The China Coast Guard’s relationship with the military is one example.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the China Coast Guard, which is part of the PAP, are all under the command of the Central Military Commission, but their fields of tasks in normal times differ.

The PAP responds to domestic threats. It is the organization which cracks down on Uyghurs, regarded by many Han Chinese as terrorists.

“Jurisdictional waters” are called “blue national territory” in China. The China Coast Guard, which serves as maritime armed police, is in charge of maintaining security in those areas of the sea.

If the PAP and the China Coast Guard serve to protect areas under China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction, the PLA can concentrate on fighting against threats outside the areas. This means that in the sea, the PLA’s main field of activity will be outside the first island chain.

The China Coast Guard will not only work to push for effective control of China’s jurisdictional waters but will also function as a hub for the nation to implement the military-civil fusion strategy in waters around the world.

Under the China coast guard law, on-site supervision authority for various maritime law enforcement duties — including use of sea areas, protection of islands, development and utilization of uninhabited islands, exploration and development of marine mineral resources, and marine scientific research — has shifted from the State Council, the chief administrative authority of the central government, to the coast guard, as is stipulated in Article 12 (5).

Moreover, the supervising and inspection of fisheries operations in waters outside the no-trawl fishing line including the high seas — set under the nation’s fisheries reform as operating areas for medium- or large-size boats — also came under the control of the coast guard, as stated in Article 12 (7).

Philippine Coast Guard personnel are seen onboard a rubber boat as they sail near Chinese vessels believed to be manned by Chinese
Philippine Coast Guard personnel are seen onboard a rubber boat as they sail near Chinese vessels believed to be manned by Chinese “maritime militia” personnel at Whitsun Reef earlier this month. | PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD / VIA REUTERS

The China Coast Guard also now has the authority to requisition private property in cases of emergency under Article 54 and to strengthen services for civilians through development of information technology under Article 57.

Article 53 requires the State Council and local governments, which compile territorial and spatial programs, to coordinate the needs of the coast guard for maritime rights protection and law enforcement.

Quick passage of law

What is China planning to do based on the new divisions of roles? The China coast guard law offers many clues.

China’s laws require the nation to compile development programs for use of sea areas, protection of islands, as well as development and utilization of uninhabited islands.

In the past, the State Oceanic Administration was in charge of compiling those programs. For instance, China’s sudden start in early 2014 of large-scale land reclamation and the construction of military bases on Spratly Island reefs in the South China Sea was based on the first national island protection program organized by the administration in 2012.

But the administration was merged into the newly formed Ministry of Natural Resources in 2018. All of the active sea-related programs then reached an end in fiscal 2020, meaning new programs were needed for the new fiscal year which started in April and the years beyond.

The China coast guard law was prepared apparently for the implementation of those new programs. The draft of the law was discussed in October. After collecting public comments, the law quickly passed at the National People’s Congress on Jan. 22 and took effect on Feb. 1.

This time, China is preparing a comprehensive “national territorial and spatial program” that unites various continental and maritime development plans together under Xi’s intention of promoting integrated designs for land and sea. The Ministry of Natural Resources is in charge of coordinating the entire program.

The plan was expected to be approved at the National People’s Congress in March, but it was only discussed at the session, probably because it wasn’t ready in time.

However, the 14th Five-Year Plan and the summary of long-term targets for 2035 released and ratified by the National People’s Congress states the following in Chapter 57:

“Promote organic integration of military construction layout and regional economic development layout to better serve the strategic needs of national security. Deepen the synergistic innovation of military and civilian science and technology, and strengthen the integrated command over military-civil developments in the fields of ocean, air and space, cyberspace. … Improve the national defense mobilization system … strengthen border defense system … consolidate the unity among the military, the government and the people.”

This indicates that the nation’s military-civil fusion strategy has clearly evolved into an integrated command over military-civil developments led by the Communist Party. It aims to create a national defense mobilization system in which the party comprehensively directs military and economic affairs as well as the armed forces and private individuals under its unified control.

And it goes without saying that the China Coast Guard will be in charge of on-site supervision of the maritime plan.

High-tech guerrillas

In November, China issued a white paper on its distant-water fishing compliance, declaring that it has been able to put under full control all the Chinese offshore fishing vessels operating around the world.

In 2020, a total of 4,400 Chinese fishing boats illegally entered the Yamatotai fishing grounds in the Sea of Japan within Japan’s EEZ. In March, a group of 220 Chinese fishing boats was spotted in the South China Sea at Whitsun Reef, which is effectively controlled by the Philippines.

These actions came as a result of the China Coast Guard’s supervision of fishing operations, as stipulated in the new coast guard law.

Making full use of rapidly developing satellite communication technology, the China Coast Guard is mobilizing civilians as high-tech guerrillas to “protect” the maritime interests it claims.

Under the new territorial and spatial program, the Chinese Communist Party and the China Coast Guard are leading the private-sector economy to fight a high-tech guerrilla war to effectively take control of jurisdictional waters.

The nation wants to create a vast space from which it can keep the U.S. Navy away while avoiding interference by the U.S. in its maritime conflicts with neighboring states.

In the future, not only Hong Kong but Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Japan will also come under pressure from China’s attempts to expand its control by mobilizing civilians and claiming it is simply governing its territory.

It is necessary for Japan to swiftly assess China’s maritime science and technology ability and work with the international community to prepare ways to cope with China’s new approach.

Chisako T. Masuo is an associate professor at Kyushu University’s Faculty of Social and Cultural Studies. Provided by Tokyo-based independent think tank Asia Pacific Initiative, API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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