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Why China's New "Coast Guard Law" Raises Risk in the S. China Sea

China coast guard
File image

Published Feb 15, 2021 8:34 PM by The Strategist

[By Michael Shoebridge]

Xi Jinping’s control over the China Coast Guard, together with a new law that authorizes the coast guard to use force against foreign ships in places China defines as in its own, is a big change that has so far attracted far less attention than it deserves.

Maybe that’s because Xi has acted on several fronts to assert Chinese power and take risks in the dying weeks of Donald Trump’s term as US president and in the early days of Joe Biden’s tenure. Some moves—like the one to put sanctions on senior Trump officials, their families and companies that employ them—have rightly attracted attention as vindictive measures. Others, like the People’s Liberation Army’s incursions into Taiwanese airspace, are about furthering Beijing’s campaign to isolate and intimidate Taiwan and test US and international resolve.

Taken together with these moves, Xi’s boldness with the coast guard shows that he’s ratcheting up the risk he’s willing to take in confronting other nations and using the leverss he has to project Chinese power. And the coast guard move is one that gives him very practical new tools to cause damage and insecurity and act in ways that others—particularly militaries—can’t, and probably shouldn’t, match.

Chinese state media has downplayed the law, saying it’s similar to other nations’ practices—but it’s not, because it signals that the Chinese state will ignore international law of the sea and international tribunal rulings when using force and define the coast guard’s jurisdiction to use force through China’s unilateral characterization of its maritime boundaries. And the way the Chinese coast guard is likely to operate in practice will be quite different too.

We’ve got used to stories of Chinese fishing fleets and Chinese militia vessels intimidating other nations’ vessels and even bumping into them to get their way, particularly in the South China Sea in waters claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, but also down into the Natuna Islands in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Chinese vessels have sunk Philippine and Vietnamese fishing vessels in the last year, and not seemed too bothered about meeting obligations to provide assistance to sailors needing help afterwards. We’ve also got used to the Chinese coast guard shadowing Chinese fishing fleets, ready to intervene if they come into contact with other nations’ vessels.

What’s different now, though, is that with this new law Xi has told his coast guard to be wolf warriors at sea—and to use force, including lethal force, to assert Chinese interests.

The Chinese coast guard has been building some novel ships that let it apply force not just with the weapons on board, but with the ships themselves. Coast guard vessels like the 10,000-ton Haixun aren’t just bigger than many naval ships operating in the South and East China Seas, but they also have strengthened hulls that are designed for deliberately hitting other vessels—‘shouldering’ is the naval term of art.

Imagine a specially designed large vessel like the Haixun ‘shouldering’ a Vietnamese, Philippine, Indonesian or even U.S. naval vessel, enabled by Xi’s law and his command to Chinese agencies and officials to engage in a difficult ‘struggle’ against the world.

Ships operated by those navies (and the Royal Australian Navy) don’t have such strengthened hulls. They’re designed to withstand some damage, mainly from weapons—and the primary approach is to prevent missile hits.

To see the kind of damage a collision with a large vessel causes to such ships, we’ve got the example of the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad, which collided with an oil tanker in 2018 before being deliberately grounded and sinking. The images tell the story. It ended with the frigate being scrapped because the damage (from the collision and from being underwater for four months) was too extensive to be repaired.

So, we may need to be thinking less about the Chinese coast guard firing on other nations’ vessels and more about how to handle coast guard commanders who are full to the brim with wolf warrior spirit and licensed by Xi to get into trouble, and how to deal with ships designed to hurt others without using their weapons.

The ability to inflict damage without weapons gives the Chinese coast guard the easy ground in an encounter. A naval vessel that can’t bump back without damaging itself is left with the choice of backing off and handing the encounter to the Chinese or using its weapons and being the first to fire. Neither is a great place to be.

The Chinese coast guard’s use of this new law and its ships in this way might get cheers in Beijing and make strident nationalists there happy. But if any Chinese leader thinks this ‘nonlethal’ use of force is a low-cost, politically free good, that would be a mistake.

Coast guard ships bumping into, damaging and perhaps sinking not just fishing vessels but other countries’ naval vessels would be a hugely escalatory and aggressive set of behaviours, especially in contested waters, no matter how Beijing characterizes them. Maybe Xi needs to hear this from the leaders of other countries before we start seeing such antics on the water.

More crystal-clear Biden phone calls to Xi, and maybe calls from leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who could mention it while celebrating investment agreements, are paths here. In his first conversation with Biden, Xi said the US needed to show caution—well, that’s a message he might take up himself.

At a basic tactical level, capturing video of the Chinese coast guard in action on smartphones and developing a communication plan that gets that footage out before Beijing spins disinformation tales of ‘It wasn’t us. It didn’t happen. They did it first’ also make sense.

Michael Shoebridge is director of the defense, strategy and national security program at ASPI. 

This article appears courtesy of ASPI's The Strategist and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.