- - Thursday, February 28, 2013

Unlike most countries with shorelines, China does not believe in maintaining a coast guard.

However, in recent years, China’s State Oceanic Administration has become the de facto coast guard, with one important caveat. It acts as China’s second navy in deliberately challenging the existing maritime demarcations and claims of virtually all of China’s maritime neighbors.

Before 2000, the State Oceanic Administration had no patrol vessels of any significance. In 1998, the little-known agency established a new division called the China Marine Surveillance. At the time, the division had only a limited number of vessels of several hundred tons of displacement in size.

However, within a few years, the division emerged as a powerful maritime force with an impressive fleet of large vessels and helicopters, armed or unarmed, known to many as China’s second navy.

In 2000, the service began to build surveillance ships larger than 1,000 tons. Now it deploys 13 ships, including several as large as 4,000 tons. Within the next several years, China is scheduled to launch 36 newer and more-modern large surveillance vessels.

In addition to its fleet, a total of 11 naval warships were turned over to the surveillance division in recent years, including two missile destroyers, Nanjing (DDG 131) and Nanning (DDG 162), each around 4,000 tons.

The navy has also sent the surveillance division an icebreaker weighting 4,300 tons, a survey vessel, a transport ship and a few naval tugboats.

All told, the division now operates about 400 seagoing vessels and about 10 aircraft, including the Russian-made Mi-8 helicopter and Y-12 transport plane.

The division forces equal a normal-size nation’s entire navy.

China has eight maritime neighbors but no mutually agreed upon maritime border with an of them.

With its rapid expansion in strength, the surveillance fleet has been aggressive in encounters with China’s maritime neighbors along its long coast from the Yalu River in northern China to the Hainan island in South China, to its vast areas of claimed maritime territories that are the subject of disputes with Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.

A senior U.S. Navy official recently called the surveillance fleet little more than a “harassment organization.”

“China Marine Surveillance cutters have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s expansive claims,” said Capt. James Fanell, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and information operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“China Marine Surveillance is a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization.”

In Capt. Fanell’s view, the division’s mission can better be understood in a much larger geopolitical context.

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