(World Affairs Journal) Today, in the ongoing South China Sea territorial disputes, much analysis is focused on Chinese efforts to expand its blue-water navy capabilities. While the accumulation of submarines, warships, and subsurface torpedoes are certainly important for China’s strategy (and one that it’s pursuing vigorously), one facet of Beijing’s plan that is just as vital, yet hasn’t been as widely discussed, is its use of civilian maritime assets in the South China Sea.
In July 2013, China completely revamped its civilian maritime elements, consolidating all maritime assets, everything from fisheries law enforcement vessels to anti-smuggling ships, under the management of a single non-military body called the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) also fell under SOA control. While the PLA Navy has a significant and growing presence in the South China Sea, it is the CCG and SOA that do most of the dirty work reported in the headlines, while the PLA ships and aircraft act as protectors to the bullying CCG and SOA ships in case things go awry.