Need for unified coast guard
Updated: 2012-10-19 07:22
By Gong Jianhua (China Daily)
The Diaoyu Islands dispute between China and Japan has been grabbing the headlines. But beyond the top news, some neighboring countries have encroached on China's islands and reefs, harassed and detained Chinese fishermen, and are exploiting China's oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. Disputes between China, and the Republic of Korea and other countries have also been reported.
These developments make it extremely important for China to strengthen its maritime law enforcement forces and conduct regular cruise surveillance in its waters.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for China to safeguard its maritime rights. Some of its neighbors have triggered sovereignty disputes over islands and reefs, maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones. The interference of major external powers in these disputes have complicated matters further for China.
Though the use of naval and air forces to deal with the disputes is not advisable, maritime law enforcement forces can help defuse the crises and prevent potential conflicts. But China's maritime law enforcement agencies are not strong enough to safeguard the country's maritime rights.
The United States has the world's most powerful coast guard., Japan's coast guard is strong, well-equipped and experienced; The ROK coast guard, too, is considerably powerful.
China, however, has five maritime law enforcement agencies: the Coast Guard of the Public Security Ministry, the Maritime Safety Administration of the Transport Ministry, the Marine Surveillance of the State Oceanic Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command of the Agriculture Ministry, and the State and General Administration of Customs. They are often referred to as the "Five Dragons".
Though the "Five Dragons" have been playing an important role in safeguarding China's maritime rights, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to handle unexpected crises. Also, they are not under a unified management of the State, which could be hampering their functions.
Japan dared to arrest Chinese fishermen and "purchase" the Diaoyu Islands, and thus inflame the dispute with China, not only because it controls the islands but also because it has a strong, well-equipped coast guard.
In contrast, the "Five Dragons" are not capable and experienced enough to handle large-scale emergencies at sea independently. Given its long coastline and huge maritime area, China has put itself in a passive and disadvantageous position by not strengthening its maritime law enforcement agencies. If China does not take immediate remedial measures, it is likely to be caught on the wrong foot in case a large-scale maritime conflict breaks out.
On the face of it, the "Five Dragons" appear to have a clear-cut division of responsibilities and each performs its own functions. The fact is otherwise, their responsibilities overlap and they have difficulty in communicating and coordinating with each other. The cost of law enforcement is high and efficiency is low. The "Five Dragons" also face difficulty in communicating and cooperating with their foreign counterparts. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to establish a reasonably structured "China Coast Guard" with clear-cut functions and full authority.
But at present, the top priority for China is to establish a foolproof information-sharing system for the existing maritime law enforcement departments in order to strengthen their cooperation and ensure cohesion during emergencies as well as normal times. In this way we can first exploit the advantages of each department to the full and then achieve functional integration step by step.
For example, we can give full play to the China Marine Surveillance and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, which have comparatively more patrol vessels, to conduct routine cruises and maintain order in the waters under China's jurisdiction. The Fisheries Law Enforcement Command could be asked to maintain fishing rights, protect Chinese fishermen and deal with fisheries disputes.
At present, the Coast Guard of the Public Security Ministry is the only armed law enforcement agency among the "Five Dragons", which makes it the most important force safeguarding the country's maritime rights and interests. Since it is mainly responsible for fighting crime at sea, including piracy and terrorism, it needs more funds to modernize and build itself into a strong force.
Of course, the formation of a unified "China Coast Guard" is a huge project, for which the central leadership has to break down departmental barriers, eliminate sectoral interests and promote a top-to-bottom formation.
But before that, the government could give the green light to system planning, structural design and function reconstruction. Maritime law enforcement functions should be put under a unified command, and the operations, powers and responsibilities of the "Five Dragons" should be specifically spelt out. Only by properly implementing and streamlining the process can we take the first step toward building a unified, powerful "China Coast Guard".
But to do that, the government has to integrate the "Five Dragons", train and cultivate more law enforcement personnel, and improve the weaponry and equipment. This will not only narrow the forces' gap with developed countries but also make it strong enough to deter marauding countries.
And after the establishment of a unified and strong "China Coast Guard", the government should ensure its personnel train, whenever possible, in conjunction with the navy and set up a seamless intelligence network and an information-sharing mechanism. The establishment of a unified "China Coast Guard" is a real need, and the earlier it is done the better it will be for the country.
The author is a professor at the School of Politics and Public Administration, Guangdong Ocean University.
(China Daily 10/19/2012 page9)