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The tip of the spear: The Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea

On Jan. 29, 2021, the Philippines filed a strongly worded diplomatic protest against China’s passage of a law authorizing the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to use force against foreign vessels in the contested waters of the South China Sea. The filing of this diplomatic protest was a reversal of Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr.’s earlier statement that the passage of the National People’s Congress of China’s CCG’s law was none of the Philippines’ business. Secretary Locsin explained that: “While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one — given the area involved or for that matter the open South China Sea — is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law; which, if unchallenged, is submission to it.”

The DFA’s protest unleashed a chorus from the Philippine Senate denouncing the Chinese CCG law. Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros rightly pointed out that “while China has the right to pass any laws it wants; these laws cannot be used in ways that violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international law.” Administration Senator Francis Tolentino joined the chorus denouncing the CCG law when he called it “scary and worrisome,” as he urged the China-friendly Duterte Administration to file a joint diplomatic protest with other South China Sea claimant states who would be adversely affected by the legislation.

Expectedly, the Chinese Embassy in Manila lashed out against the Philippines for what it called false accusations about the CCG Law. It accused some forces in the country for spreading fake news such as the CCG has been harassing Filipino fishermen, and the sensationalized account of the illegal intrusion of a Chinese scientific ship in Philippine waters. The embassy also claimed that the law has been misinterpreted and that it was a normal domestic legislative activity.

THE TIP OF THE SPEAR

The Chinese Embassy reasoned out that that the passage of the CCG law is a normal domestic legislative activity and that such a law is not unique to China, and it is a sovereign right by all states. The Chinese Embassy’s statement, however, is silent on the CCG’s current operations in the South and East China Seas.

China has been legitimizing its expansive maritime claims in East Asia through the use of domestic law, obstruction of other littoral states from exploiting their own resources in their exclusive economic zones, facilitating the operations of Chinese economic actors in exploiting marine resources, and the deployment of ships for long-range and long-term patrols in South China Sea. CCG vessels spent 70% of their operational time at sea patrolling disputed land features such as Scarborough, Second Thomas, and Luconia Shoals. These patrols are aimed at flaunting China’s naval clout over the Philippines and Malaysia and locking its claims to about 85% of the South China Sea.

The CCG is unlike most coast guards since it patrols Chinese-claimed territory while conducting peacetime operations in disputed maritime areas, thus, blurring the line separating the platforms and missions traditionally associated with law enforcement, and those associated with national defense. It has conducted ramming and harassment against civilian vessels of other states — and even firing shots — resulting in low-level violence but without significant escalation.

SHARPENING THE TIP

The Chinese Embassy’s statement is accurate when it mentioned that there is no change in China’s maritime policy, which is aimed at combining both off-shore and open sea defenses. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is tasked to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests such as the security of the sea lines of communication essential for the import and export of commodities, and the exploitation of seabed oil and natural gas resources in the South and East China Seas. This requires the PLAN to be capable of addressing naval threats to China’s vital interests in seas areas outside its offshore waters.

China’s maritime civilian law enforcement agencies served as the first-response frontline units for maritime sovereignty disputes and contingencies. The Chinese government realized that using non-military/civilian vessels is more acceptable to international public opinion and avoids escalation of maritime disputes. In March 2013, the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a legislation integrating four of five of China’s maritime law enforcement agencies into the new CCG. The PLAN has accepted the strategic logic of giving the CCG the lead role in maritime sovereignty disputes as it provided the latter with decommissioned ships, ammunition, and professional training and education. On Jan. 23, 2021, the NPC passed the law that allows the CCG to use all necessary means to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels operating in waters claimed by China. This legislation, in turn, has sharpened the tip of the spear of China’s maritime expansion in the South and East China Seas.

DR. RENATO DE CASTRO is a Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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