Red tape and conflicting sovereignty interests are hindering efforts to set up a coastguard code of conduct in the South China Sea, despite the rising risk of confrontation, observers said.
They said part of the problem was that coastguards often fell under various government agencies, especially in China where the authorities are still centralising maritime law enforcement, making it difficult for Beijing to commit to a code.
Tensions in the disputed waters have risen over China’s competing territorial claims with Southeast Asian neighbours and close encounters between Chinese and US military vessels. But Asia-Pacific naval chiefs approved a code of conduct two years ago to defuse unexpected encounters between navy vessels and aircraft.
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New concerns have surfaced as coastguards have stepped up patrols of the sea, but the clashes have yet to escalate to the level of a military confrontation.
Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asian Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the absence of a code for coastguards was troubling.
“The existing Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which counts all the South China Sea claimant states as signatories, applies only to navy vessels and does not cover coastguards, fishing fleets and other enforcement agencies,” Tang said. “This gap is worrisome as skirmishes between coastguard ships and fishing fleets have been on the rise in the South China Sea, and would most likely be the flashpoint that sets the [area] ablaze.”
As part of Beijing’s attempts to position itself as a maritime power, Chinese law enforcement vessels have stepped up patrols in both the South and East China seas. China has 205 coastguard vessels, of which 95 have a displacement of more than 1,000 tonnes and some are refurbished navy vessels, according to a report by the US Office of Naval Intelligence last year. Japan has 78 coast guard vessels, Vietnam 55, Indonesia eight, the Philippines four, and Malaysia two.
Incidents involving coastguard vessels have become more common. In March, Indonesia said a Chinese coastguard ship rammed a Chinese fishing boat detained by Indonesian maritime authorities at a base on the Natuna Islands, forcing Jakarta to release the fishing vessel.
“A useful step towards the regional code for unplanned encounters at sea would be to establish a direct hotline among coastguard regional commanders to manage misunderstandings in a timely manner,” Tang said.
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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have agreed to consider a proposal to establish a code that will include coastguards.
Beijing ordered the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the coastguard to moderate their behaviour after a string of incidents in 2013 and 2014, according to a report published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy last month. Those incidents included the near collision of the USS Cowpens and a PLA warship in the South China Sea, and the ramming of Vietnamese coastguard ships near a Chinese oil rig by Chinese coastguard forces.
China is less concerned about a coastguard clash in the South China Sea with Southeast Asian nations because Southeast Asian coastguards are weaker
But the report said Beijing had moved more slowly on confidence-building measures, including the coastguard code, with Asean nations than it had with Japan and the United States.
“China is less concerned about a coastguard clash in the South China Sea with Southeast Asian nations because Southeast Asian coastguards are weaker. China generally believes that this type of incident is less likely to escalate to a big clash,” Ashley Townshend, co-author of the report and also a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said.
Townshend said setting up a code for coastguards was more difficult than simply adopting the existing one for Asian navies because coastguards fell under different government agencies.
China’s coastguard was formed in 2013, when Beijing started to centralise maritime law enforcement powers scattered among various agencies under the administrative control of the State Oceanic Administration and operational control of the Ministry of Public Security.
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Townshend said the reforms were ongoing and multiple government bodies had overlapping responsibilities for the new China Coast Guard, making it harder for Beijing to commit to a code.
Another problem was sovereignty given that such a code might mean subjecting coastguard forces regulated by domestic laws to international rules established with other countries.
“It’s not necessarily the case that the Philippines, Vietnam and China will agree that around the Spratly Islands they should have their coastguards’ behaviour regulated, as they each have competing claims to these waters and may view a coastguard code as undermining the bigger question of maritime jurisdiction and sovereignty,” he said.
The Chinese coastguard in the South China Sea is conducting its duties in China’s jurisdictional waters, and there is no need to have a similar code to the navy
Wang Hanling, maritime affairs expert
Wang Hanling, a maritime affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Chinese coastguard had already worked with neighbouring nations on rescue operations.
“The Chinese coastguard in the South China Sea is conducting its duties in China’s jurisdictional waters, and there is no need to have a similar code to the navy,” Wang said.
Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a private diplomacy organisation that held a maritime confidence-building programme on the South China Sea in March, said the imminent ruling on rival claims by an international court in The Hague added uncertainty for Beijing.
“It’s an extremely sensitive period ahead of the ruling. It’s difficult for the Chinese navy and the coastguard to engage in the issue because they may not be ready to commit to … an agreement,” Vatikiotis said.
Jin Yongming, director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Ocean Strategy Studies Centre, said China should reach an agreement with Asean on a notification mechanism for coastguards.