It’s tempting to conclude, on the basis of China’s recent assertiveness in its near seas, that a naval conflict in Asia is inevitable. Indeed, judging from the military procurement programs initiated by some of China’s neighbors in response -- not to mention Washington’s decision to rebalance its military efforts toward Asia as part of its so-called pivot -- that seems to be precisely what the United States and its allies in the region have concluded.

But before blaming Beijing for initiating an arms race, it’s worth taking a closer look at its policies. Anyone who does will discover that China’s assertiveness usually isn’t armed at all.

First, a little context. China is currently undergoing a huge strategic shift to the maritime domain. This should be seen as the natural progression of a developing power as it moves from seeing itself as a land power primarily concerned with internal convulsions to seeing itself as a maritime power preoccupied with its maritime boundaries. The United States, for instance, turned to the sea only after it had completed its westward expansion, settled its southern boundary following the Mexican-American War, and finalized the purchase of Alaska. Similarly, as Beijing has become more confident in its ability to secure China’s interior and its land borders (many of which were previously disputed but are now resolved), it has shifted its attention to its vulnerabilities in nearby waters.

The importance of this historic shift to the sea is hard to overstate. The counterpiracy operations launched by the PLA Navy since 2008 were the first out-of-area operations for the Chinese military in more than 600 years. More generally, China has come to understand just how much it relies on maritime trade for the supply of energy and raw materials and the passage of its exports, which drive its economic growth. In 2004, President Hu Jintao first mentioned the country's “Malacca dilemma,” noting that 85 percent of China's imported oil transits through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. In November of that year, Hu explicitly emphasized during his speech at the National People’s Congress the goal of building China “into a maritime power.” And in 2012, Beijing established its first body tasked specifically with formulating maritime policy for the Politburo.

A number of Asia watchers have interpreted Beijing’s new posture as an initiation of a major arms build-up. But that is a rather alarmist interpretation. Yes, there is some evidence of Chinese military procurements. But the key to understanding the most significant maritime policy realized by China in recent years -- the recent unification of four of the country's five maritime agencies – is realizing that it does not involve the Chinese military. It's a policy that was designed to be assertive without being confrontational.

What the reform actually entails is the creation of a unified law enforcement agency, in essence China's first unified coast guard. Previously, five agencies -- China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC), the Anti-Smuggling Bureau, the Coast Guard, and the Maritime Safety Administration -- all competed for influence and funding. Of these five, four will now be joined within one administrative structure: the State Oceanic Administration under the Ministry of Land and Resources. (The Maritime Safety Administration remains separate from the new streamlined structure.) Within the State Oceanic Administration, a new National Oceanic Commission will help formulate maritime policy. 

It’s only natural that China would want to streamline these agencies. Until now, each had reported to a separate ministry with entirely unique bureaucratic procedures and fleets. The status quo was untenable, not least because the fleets of CMS and FLEC had expanded significantly in recent years. (CMS received 11 decommissioned naval ships in December 2012, and FLEC recently received several former naval vessels, including a massive 15,000-ton replenishment ship, a submarine rescue ship, former cargo ships, and a former tanker.) A single coast guard should theoretically allow China to more clearly interact with other agencies in the region, limiting the potential for unintended conflict. Previously, if an incident occurred, particularly one that involved multiple agencies, it was unclear who should be contacted to resolve it. Now, there is one number to call when tension arises.

Despite all this, China's neighbors do have reason to be concerned with recent maritime maneuvers. CMS and FLEC have been at the forefront of China's assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. It was vessels from these agencies that intercepted the U.S.N.S. Impeccable in 2009, cut survey cables off Vietnamese and Philippine vessels in 2011, and confronted the Philippine Navy's flagship in April 2012. Unarmed and painted white, FLEC and CMS vessels offer China a less confrontational way to announce its presence in disputed seas -- and even to de facto occupy waters near disputed islands.

A recent case in point was the standoff over the uninhabited Scarborough Shoal from April 2012, situated approximately 125 miles west of the Philippines and claimed by both Manila and Beijing. The attempt to arrest Chinese fishermen by a Philippine flagship was countered by the deployment of CMS and FLEC vessels. The subsequent withdrawal by Philippine vessels essentially meant China had successfully coerced the Philippines into abandoning its position. To this day, Chinese fishermen continue to exploit the area's rich fishing grounds, protected by civilian vessels, while Filipino fishermen are largely absent.

Even if Beijing’s better coordinated coast guard agency more effectively asserts its claims in the region, China's neighbors and the United States should be careful in calibrating their response. Above all, they should avoid provoking China into involving its own military in maritime disputes, which it has so far mostly refrained from doing. Thus, China’s neighbors would do well to emphasize a nonmilitary presence in disputed waters and islands, potentially even introducing constabulary agencies where military forces are currently deployed in the South China Sea (there is already a precedent: Taiwan substituted its military deployment along Itu Aba island with a Coast Guard Administration deployment in 2000). 

Along these lines, Tokyo has been investing in its own coast guard in a bid to compete with China. In January, the Japanese Coast Guard announced that it would add a further twelve vessels to the seven currently deployed along the country's southwest coast. A dedicated Senkaku/Diaoyu team will be inaugurated within three years with ten newly constructed patrol boats. Other countries locked in maritime disputes with China, including the Philippines, are similarly investing in their coast guard agencies.  

For now, regional disputes are still focused on constabulary, not military, competition. That doesn’t mean that the maritime disputes are about to be resolved: China’s assertive maritime policies make clear that there is little hope for success in negotiations in the short term. Indeed, the unification of China’s agencies serves to clarify its motives. Previously, China could conceal its assertive policies behind a smokescreen of confused interagency rivalry and a lack of coordination. Now, it's clear that any aggressive moves at sea are being directed by Beijing, rather than some provincial politician or parochial bureaucrat. And there should be no illusion about China's intention to eventually utilize its navy to further foreign policy goals. (Just this past April, China's government released a white paper declaring for the first time that the People's Liberation Army should eventually assume responsibility for “safeguarding maritime rights and interests” and “protecting overseas interests,” further indicating the country’s strategic shift to the sea.)

But that's not yet reason enough for China's neighbors, or Washington, to see an explicit arms race where none currently exists. If predictions of an inevitable maritime war in Asia prove to be prescient, it may be because they had the character of self-fulfilling prophecies.

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  • CHRISTIAN LE MIERE is a Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His book, Regional Disorder: The South China Sea Disputes, was published in March.
  • More By Christian Le Mière