Chinese General Calls for New Coast Guard

An outspoken senior Chinese military figure told reporters at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference this week that China should form its own coast guard to manage maritime disputes with neighboring countries, particularly those arising on the South China Sea. From The China Daily:

Luo, an outspoken senior military figure in China, made the remarks against the background of disputes between China and several of its neighbors intensifying in recent years over. These have intensified disputes regarding claims to territory of some islands and demarcation of some waters in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei dispute China’s sovereignty over some islands and waters in the South China Sea, and Japan claims China’s Diaoyu Islands as its own.

Meanwhile, the United States is increasing its involvement in Asia-Pacific affairs, saying it has a national interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, which has further complicated the disputes.

Cases have recently been reported of Chinese fishing vessels that in Chinese waters being expelled or their captains being arrested by foreign countries, yet the ships of China’s fishery administration are not equipped to quickly and efficiently react to such emergencies.

The coast guard would be equipped to deal with these situations, giving the country more room to maneuver in such thorny cases, said Luo, adding that it has been a common practice for big countries to have such a force.

In the latest sign of tension on the South China Sea, Vietnam accused Chinese forces of attacking Vietnamese fisherman and preventing them to seek refuge during a storm. And with natural resource security another source of diplomatic instability, as a number of state and private enterprises are eager to strike deals with the likes of Vietnam and the Philippines, The Wall Street Journal reports that Luo’s “hawkish views” may have support among other generals and some pockets of the public.

In a piece for The Diplomat this week, MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel calls attention to a recent attempt by China to clarify its claims in the South China Sea:

Ambiguity about the extent of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea has been a key source of concern in this dispute. In the 1990s, China issued a series of domestic laws detailing its maritime claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, including 12 nautical mile territorial seas and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Nevertheless, Chinese maps continue to contain a “nine-dashed line” around the South China Sea. The line first appeared on an official map produced by the Republic of China in 1947. After 1949, China continued to use the line on its official maps, but never defined what the line included or excluded.

First, the spokesperson, Hong Lei, distinguished between disputes over “territorial sovereignty of the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands” and disputes over maritime demarcation. This affirms past statements, including a note to the United Nations in May 2011, that China will advance maritime claims that are consistent and compliant with UNCLOS. Under UNCLOS, states may only claim maritime rights such as an EEZ from land features like a nation’s coastline or its islands.

Second, and more importantly, the spokesperson further stated that “No country including China has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” By making such a statement, this phrase suggests that the “nine-dashed line” doesn’t represent a claim to maritime rights (such as historic rights), much less a claim to sovereignty over the water space enclose by the line. More likely, the line indicates a claim to the islands, reefs and other features that lie inside.

See also recent CDT coverage of the South China Sea dispute, including January protests by the Philippines over the presence of Chinese ships in their waters, and subsequent calls by the Chinese for ‘stability and peace’ after the Philippines agreed to allow a greater U.S. troop presence and hold more joint military exercises with the Americans.