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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

China's brooding 'Dragons' complicate standoffs at sea

Sentaku Magazine

Chinese maritime law-enforcement agencies operate and are organized in such a complicated manner that they appear embroiled in a turf war. That became apparent when Japan and China held its first intergovernmental talks on maritime affairs in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, May 15-16.

The biggest gain for the Japanese side from the meeting, a defense expert said, was that it was able to meet representatives of all of those enforcement agencies.

China has five maritime law-enforcement agencies and there is no clear-cut division of responsibilities or authority among them. The five agencies represented at the two-day meeting were (1) China Coast Guard belonging to the Public Security Ministry, (2) Maritime Safety Administration of the Transport Ministry, (3) Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) of the Agriculture Ministry, (4) State Oceanographic Administration of the Land and Resources Ministry, and (5) General Administration of Customs.

Each of these agencies, often referred to collectively as the "Five Dragons," has its own paramilitary units. The first comprehensive study on them was made by the United States Naval War College, which in 2010 published the valuable report "Five Dragons Stirring Up the Sea."

The report says the total number of personnel belonging to the Five Dragons stands at about 40,000, compared with some 12,000 in the Japan Coast Guard. In view of Japan's 30,000 kilometers of coastline versus China's 18,000 kilometers, the Chinese forces are sizable.

The 10,000-strong China Coast Guard has high-speed boats and small patrol ships as well as small firearms. In addition to its primary responsibility of combating crime, it has recently started the task of preventing terrorist activities. The Coast Guard is the only one of the Dragons with its own educational institution, located at Ningbo.

Contrary to a popular perception in Japan, the Chinese ships seen near Japan's Senkaku Islands since the 2010 Senkaku collision incident are not those of the Coast Guard but of FLEC, whose manpower is estimated to be smaller than that of the China Coast Guard. But FLEC maintains large ships in excess of 4,000 tons, some of which have been converted from navy warships.

Some FLEC vessels have also been seen near the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea where China is in territorial disputes with surrounding nations. In June last year, a Chinese fishing boat came close to cutting a cable laid by a survey ship of PetroVietnam operating within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). A FLEC ship watched the situation from nearby. If a Chinese naval vessel had been involved, there could easily have been a military incident.

The responsibility to oversee marine resources other than fish belongs to the State Oceanographic Administration. This body is estimated to have more than 6,000 personnel and is equipped with more than 20 medium- to large-size ships, each in excess of 1,000 tons. Its primary mission is to protect the environment, to conduct scientific surveys and to enforce laws protecting China's EEZ.

The Maritime Safety Administration is 20,000 strong, the largest of the Five Dragons. Its primary missions are inspection of ships, investigation of marine accidents, rescue of victims of maritime accidents and vessel traffic control.

Finally, the General Administration of Customs is engaged in collecting customs duties and preventing contraband trade.

The Five Dragons have overlapping responsibilities. In the Scarborough Shoal, where a dispute between China and the Philippines has festered for more than a month, the presence of Chinese ships belonging to FLEC and the State Oceanographic Administration has been confirmed, as in 2009. Such ships as well as Chinese naval vessels blocked the passage of a U.S. ocean surveillance ship.

Why are there so many different agencies for law enforcement at sea?

One answer is that the People's Liberation Army has long neglected the importance of the navy. Accordingly, the various agencies developed paramilitary units to make up for the relative weakness of the navy.

Within China, there have been moves to rectify this situation and several ideas have been put forward. In March this year, for example, Adm. Luo Yuan of the Military Academy of Sciences proposed an initiative that would create a comprehensive coast guard unit by unifying different organizations to eliminate redundancy and to save money. But there is little prospect of his idea translating into action.

It may be most reasonable to combine the China Coast Guard and the State Oceanographic Administration, but that would be opposed by FLEC. Another proposal, to establish a comprehensive maritime law, has faced resistance from the Five Dragons, each of which fears loss of power and authority. The PLA Navy may want to set up its own coast guard unit, but that would be viewed as intruding into the Five Dragons' vested interests.

Since the downfall of Bo Xilai, who headed the Chinese Communist Party's Chongqing committee, political winds seem to favor the China Coast Guard. Former Public Security Minister Zhou Yangkang has apparently lost power and influence since the downfall of Bo, who was thought to be on track for a top national position.

Zhou was replaced by Meng Jianzhu, considered a shoo-in for a position with the CCP's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. This suggests that anyone who represents the interests of the China Coast Guard will gravitate toward the center of China's political power.

With no end in sight to the bitter power struggle among the Five Dragons, it seems next to impossible to hope for integration or reorganization of the paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies. To increase their power and protect their interests, they are expected to continue engaging in activities at sea that will create friction.

If Japan or, for that matter, any neighboring country thoughtlessly takes an aggressive stance toward any of these organizations, it could give China a chance to take advantage of the situation. This would be big trouble for neighboring countries.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.


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