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China’s coastguard adds ballast to case for regional code of conduct

By Anthony Bergin

Chinese coastguard ships will now be even more willing to harass civilian vessels to prevent regional states from performing lawful activities in their own waters

The probability of violent incidents at sea occurring in our region just increased. Last month China passed a law that will result in greater Chinese coercion.

The new law amounts to an act of aggression: it allows China’s coastguard to fire on foreign vessels, civilian or military. Chinese coastguard ships will now be even more willing to harass civilian vessels to prevent regional states’ lawful activities in their own waters.

China’s coastguard is under the central military commission. The new law allows China’s coastguard to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels, demolish other states’ structures and board and inspect foreign vessels on reefs and in waters claimed by China. Retired supreme court judge from the philippines, antonio carpio, said China had rendered any code of conduct in the south China sea “dead on arrival” through its passage of the law.

To counter China’s aggressive behaviour at sea, the US coastguard is pivoting to the Indo-Pacific. Last october it was announced that the US would homeport several of its fast coastguard cutters to the western pacific, starting in american samoa.

The US is also increasing the number of shiprider agreements it has with countries in the indo-pacific.

These allow coastal states to authorise the US coastguard to board another ship when a law enforcement officer from that country is on board. Ironically, China has said this increased US coastguard presence “disrupts” the maritime security order.

The size and capabilities of regional coastguards continue to grow. They’ve been involved in most major incidents in the south China sea. The growth trend for coastguards looks set to stay.

That’s for several reasons. There’s been a general increase in maritime activity, especially shipping and the exploration and exploitation of offshore oil and gas, which require monitoring and policing for safety, security and environmental protection.

There’s been a continuation of a high level of illegal activity at sea, be it piracy, armed robbery against ships, and trafficking in drugs, arms and people.

Another reason is the number of boundary and sovereignty disputes in the region, notably in the South China Sea. Coastguards are regarded as preferable for sovereignty protection in disputed areas rather than navies, which carry a higher level of political risk.

Coastguards are generally cheaper to acquire than their military equivalents.

They’re also cheaper to operate, with smaller crews and less sophisticated equipment.

Law enforcement at sea is becoming more complex with the increased number of international regulations dealing with illegal activity at sea. Regional navies are focused more on war-fighting capabilities. Most are reluctant to be too heavily involved in policing tasks.

If we’re not to see more violent incidents at sea associated with coastguards, then two measures are needed.

First, there should be regional guidelines on maritime law enforcement for use between ships and aircraft engaged in civil maritime security operations. Some years ago China and ASEAN adopted a code for unplanned encounters at sea in the south China sea. But it’s only for naval ships and naval aircraft.

The code should be expanded to cover coast guards.

Any guidelines would need to include arrangements for joint training and exercises, mechanisms for joint consultations after an incident and arrangements for coastguard hotlines.

In the first instance guidelines might apply only to interactions between coastguards and not to interactions between naval vessels. Countries might be encouraged to adopt guidelines bilaterally until there’s broader regional agreement.

The second measure we should take to encourage greater co-operation between coastguards is to establish an indo-pacific maritime law enforcement centre to cater for the professional development requirements of regional coastguards.

Strengthening civil maritime law enforcement is necessary to assist the region managing common challenges such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, drug trafficking, people smuggling, marine pollution and search and rescue. Currently there’s no dedicated institution focused specifically on providing professional training and education for officers from regional coastguards.

The centre would strengthen regional co-operation to better meet civil maritime security challenges. It would include a research capability on technologies to enhance maritime law enforcement capacities across the region.

Crucial to the success of the centre would be sponsors ranging from national maritime authorities and various regional and international bodies, such as interpol and international maritime organisation.

The centre should be located in darwin given its status as the gateway to southeast asia. It would underline australia’s strong links to the region.

The centre would promote a multinational approach to the conduct of regional law enforcement operations at sea at a time of increasing maritime insecurity.

Originally published by: on 04 Feb 2021