By Tsukasa Hadano, Nikkei staff writer
BEIJING — China has filled its coast guard command with naval personnel in an apparent attempt to shore up its armed presence in contested waters.
When China integrated various maritime law enforcement units into the China Coast Guard in 2013, the leadership was a mix of civilian and military staff. Now the top spots in all regional divisions are filled with naval figures.
This comes as China has become more active in nearby waters to secure natural resources and other interests. The coast guard’s management reshuffle appears strategic in nature.
The personnel changes were completed by June, when navy veterans replaced coast guard unit chiefs overseeing the South China Sea and a Bohai Sea-adjacent northern area. Previously, a naval officer was appointed to oversee the East China Sea region, near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands — which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is thought to be closely involved in these staff changes. The China Coast Guard was placed last July directly under the Xi-led Central Military Commission.
Rear Adm. Wang Zhongcai was tapped in December to head the China Coast Guard, further indicating the degree of attention the fleet is receiving.
Neighboring countries are alarmed. If the Chinese coast guard becomes another military branch deploying heavily armed vessels, it will present a difficult challenge for other coast guards that carry out normal border security functions.
The East China Sea has already seen a change. For 64 consecutive days until June, Chinese-controlled vessels sailed in maritime contiguous zones approaching Japanese territorial waters. The stretch was the longest since September 2012, when Japan bought the Senkakus.
“China Coast Guard vessels have become bigger in size and capable of long-term maritime activity,” a source from the Japan Coast Guard said.
Chinese vessels are entering Japanese territorial waters more frequently and in greater numbers. Such actions have increased from around once or twice a month in 2018 to three times a month in 2019. The incursions involved a total of 98 vessels through Monday, well above the 70 for all of 2018.