A file photo shows three China Coast Guard ships in the East China Sea. Photo: China Youth Daily

The People’s Liberation Army, having just taken over China’s 1.5-million-strong People’s Armed Police Force this year, is again expecting a boost to its headcount with the proposed absorption of the China Coast Guard, according to an announcement on Monday.

Effective next month, the more than 16,000 personnel and the 135 patrol and cruise vessels of the Chinese maritime law-enforcement force will be at the beck and call of the PLA and its command and control, the Central Military Commission, after the transfer of command from the State Oceanic Administration.

The China Coast Guard will be a branch of the Chinese military starting next month. Photo: Xinhua

It is believed that the coast guard will be integrated into the PLA Navy as an auxiliary branch under a hierarchy similar to the one the US Coast Guard is in: The latter will operate under the Pentagon as a service in the Department of the Navy in the event of a war.

The official name of the China Coast Guard and its insignia will be retained, though, for non-military operations including fighting criminal maritime activities, search and rescue, maritime resource protection, fishery management and anti-smuggling patrols, Xinhua said, stressing that the transfer of leadership is not relegation of the maritime law-enforcement team.

People’s Daily also revealed that the coast guard’s ships would be armed with “more powerful small-diameter cannons” instead of water cannons, and crews aboard these patrol vessels could also be authorized to “carry firearms.”

Currently the principal vessels of the coast guard are ships decommissioned from the navy and repurposed for patrol and self-defense purposes, and some have shipborne helicopters, including the 3,300-ton Type 072-class landing ship and the Type 053H2G multi-role frigates capable of launching anti-ship/aircraft missiles.

Members of the China Coast Guard attend a casting-off ceremony. Photo: Weibo

The move caps Beijing’s sweeping reorganization to assemble virtually all of the nation’s armed law-enforcement agencies, other than provincial and municipal police forces, into the military to streamline operations, but the incendiary “militarization” of the coast guard may further disconcert neighbors over disputed atolls and reefs in the East and South China Seas.

For instance, previous face-offs between Chinese and Japanese ships in waters such as those around the Diaoyu (aka Senkaku) Islands didn’t entail military involvement. But now Japan will have to reformulate its tactics and tread carefully at the sight of China Coast Guard ships edging closer to that chain of islets: Is it a PLA deployment or just a routine patrol by the Chinese marine agency?

The Philippines, Vietnam and other nations with unresolved maritime and territorial rifts with China will face similar complications.

Analysts warn that future activities by the new PLA coast guard in troubled waters risk escalating conflicts as other nations may interpret these patrols as a PLA “invasion” of their sovereignty and may step up response accordingly and mobilize their own militaries to intercept.

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