China Coast Guard Brandished A “Sword”: A Demonstration of China’s New Quality Combat Force

Release Date : 2024-07-03

(Huang, Chung Ting, Associate Research Fellow, Division of Chinese Politics, Military and Warfighting Concepts, Institute for National Defense and Security Research)

The China Coast Guard (CCG) first brandished a “sword” toward the Philippine force to exercise rights protection and law enforcement during a close encounter in the Second Thomas Shoal (Ren'ai Reef) on June 17, perhaps to demonstrate the construction of its “new quality combat force.” This move surpasses the act when Chinese force threw stones at Indian soldiers on the western border in 2020.

The CCG has recently issued significant statements on maritime law enforcement and rights protection. There were 13 cases last year and 14 cases by the end of this June, indicating an escalation in conflict risks related to China’s maritime law enforcement efforts. Among the 27 cases, the CCG adopted tracing and surveillance tactics 8 times, normally against larger-tonnage vessels or when other enforcement methods are more challenging. They conducted verbal warnings 13 times, all targeting at the Philippines to highlight their efforts of dissuading before taking coercive measures. They took driving-off measures 16 times and “external coercion” 6 times, all involving in law enforcement in the waters of Scarborough Shoal (or Democracy Reef/ Huangyan Island), and a forcible driving-off act was first taken in the Second Thomas Shoal on June 17. Control measures were taken 22 times, including “route control” 6 times, all in the waters of Scarborough Shoal, and “interception control” 7 times, all in the vicinity of the Second Thomas Shoal, primarily targeting at the humanitarian and non-humanitarian supplies to the ship BRP Sierra Madre with different measures. Since March this year, the CCG’s “boarding verification” on Sandy Cay (Tiexian Reef) and the “boarding inspection” on the Filipino official vessel on July 17 are evidence of CCG’s upgrading its maritime law enforcement actions.

In terms of law and specific measures, the CCG’s actions of boarding and inspection are in accordance with Article 16 of the Coast Guard Law of the People’s Republic of China fore “identification and verification,” and Article 18 for boarding and landing. However, despite these legal justification, its unilateral enforcement actions are not allowed by current internation law. According to Article 73 of The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it has to be the coastal state, in the exercise of its sovereign rights over the living resources in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), take necessary measures including boarding and inspection. And in Article 110, it is not justified in boarding a foreign ship on the high seas unless there is reasonable ground for suspicions of privacy, slave trade or failure to display nationality, and the onboard inspection must be carried out with all possible consideration. Therefore, the CCG sailed a long way to claim its jurisdiction rights in the Philippine EEZ, exercising boarding rights over Filipino vessels, that is totally unjustified.

The case on June 17, 2024, serves as a good example for Taiwan in response to maritime threats. According to video footage and accounts from the Philippines, the CCG sounded sirens when boarding the Philippine vessel, brandishing long knives and axes to cause damage. It allegedly seized 8 M4 rifles in the boxes, together with navigation equipment and other supplies while causing injuries of several Filipinos, including one who lost his right thumb.

Regarding the sounding sirens, it is stipulated in Article 33 of the Coast Guard Law that clear audio and visual signals should be shown to instruct vessels for inspections when the coast guards conduct boarding and inspection. However, the use of knives and axes to cause damage has violated Article 46 of the same law that the coast guards are allowed to use weapons and other equipment, when it is necessary to compel a vessel to stop or to counter resistance during boarding. As for seizing weapons, equipment and supplies, it has violated the stipulation in Article 105 of the Coast Guard Agency Law Enforcement Procedural Guidelines on that the seizure should be limited to items relevant as evidence, and it should not include daily necessities or unrelated items. 

In terms of the incident that a Filippino lost his thumb, if it resulted from the weapon by the Chinese side, it might be the first case of the Chinese coast guards using handheld weapons in accordance with Article 47 of he Coast Guard Law for maritime law enforcement. Given that Article 48 authorizes the coast guards to employ shipborne or airborne weapons to handle violent incidents at sea and that Article 49 grants them the authority to use weapons without warnings, such operations of the CCG in the gray zones of the South China Sea continue to increase. The operations involve military-grade lasers, surrounding water cannon exchanges, long-range directional sound waves, AI water cannons, and even deliberate collision tactics. It is believed that the scope and severity of the CCG’s threat will further expand.

From the perspective of development of this incident, the US and the Philippines currently have no intention to heighten their stances against China since they have not hyped the identity of the personnel injured, using words like ‘personnel’ and ‘serviceman’ in their diplomatic statement instead of ‘seaman’ or ‘sailor,’ that more closely correspond to the wording in Article 5 of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), protecting the designated subjects.

Since China announced a comprehensive maritime law enforcement exercise in the waters of East Taiwan on May 24, and the CCG once emphasized the trainings on the subjects of verification, identification, warning and driving off, our Navy and Coast Guard should urgently strengthen specific hardware and software equipment required in response to CCG’s coercive actions and tactics in the gray zones. In terms of cognitive warfare, the CCG has accused the Philippine side three times of violating the “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (also known as Collision Regulations, COLREGs)” while engaging in dangerous collisions. It implied that the Philippine vessels failed to avoid colliding or turn right when approaching from the opposite direction. Therefore, it is recommended that our government promptly equip ships expected to operate in the adjacent areas with video recording devices (including drones) from various angles to counter possible biased news manipulation and provocative actions from China.

Translated to English by Tracy Chou