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China

Growth of Chinese coast guard causing concern – and the US pushes back.

The guided-missile frigate Changzhou (Hull 549) and the guided-missile destroyer Jinan (Hull 152) attached to a destroyer flotilla with the navy under the PLA Eastern Theater Command, steam in formation in waters of the East China Sea during a maritime training exercise on January 20, 2021. Training items including main-gun live-fire operations, comprehensive assault and defense, joint search and rescue are practiced during the exercise. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Fang Sihang)

China’s navy – the PLA(N) – is already the world’s largest in terms of numbers of hulls with 350 ships, though still well short of the USN in overall tonnage.  However, if the coast guard – or to use its full title, the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Coast Guard Corps – is added to the mix the ability of Beijing to project power is even greater.  It now numbers close to 200 seagoing ships and a myriad of smaller patrol craft.

Put another way, China – traditionally a major land power now has the world’s largest navy and the world’s largest coast guard.

However, there is even more to it than that.  Firstly the coast guard ships are getting bigger.  On February 8 in Wuhan the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp (CSIC) launched the Haixun 06, which is a 5,000-tonne multi role ship in the frigate to small destroyer size bracket.  Next year it is expected the coast guard will take delivery of the first of class of a 10,000 tonne design, which is larger than the USN’s latest Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyers – though the Chinese ships will be only modestly armed.

Another thing that has changed recently is the function of the Chinese service, which on January 22 was the subject of a legislative change giving it greater latitude to use force.  The Philippines almost immediately lodged a protest and another country potentially in the firing line – Japan – has also expressed considerable concern about the development.  The country that is at the greatest risk of aggressive behaviour of course is Taiwan, which has long been the subject of harassing maritime boundary incursions by both the PLA(N) and the Chinese coast guard.

Once again, there has been a tough exchange of words between Beijing and the new Biden administration about Taiwan. With the former urging the US to stay out of China’s internal affairs – using the fiction that Taiwan is merely a renegade province – Washington has returned fire in the form of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which says about China:

“By restoring U.S. credibility and reasserting forward-looking global leadership, we will ensure that America, not China, sets the international agenda, working alongside others to shape new global norms and agreements that advance our interests and reflect our values. By bolstering and defending our unparalleled network of allies and partners, and making smart defense investments, we will also deter Chinese aggression and counter threats to our collective security, prosperity, and democratic way of life.”

And specifically about Taiwan:

“We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments. We will ensure that U.S. companies do not sacrifice American values in doing business in China. And we will stand up for democracy, human rights, and human dignity, including in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. On all these issues, we will work to forge a common approach with like-minded countries.”

While there is continuing speculation that China will attempt an invasion of Taiwan at some point, the feeling in the USN – which will be at the forefront of any US response – is that such a risky move is unlikely before at least 2026.  It is the case that President Xi would see the capture of Taiwan as a major political triumph – but what he would also be factoring in is that a failed invasion attempt would be a correspondingly huge and irrecoverable disaster.

As we have written before, even though China massively overmatches Taiwan in the size of their respective militaries, the island is nevertheless well armed – and getting stronger because of factors such as increasing US arms sales and after years of domestic procrastination a domestic submarine building program.  Providing that the government of Taipei does not do anything as rash as a declaration of independence, the status quo seems likely to be maintained.

Without doubt, Beijing will find ways to test the resolve of the new Biden administration, but if the words contained in the Interim Strategic Guidance – signed by President Biden himself – are anything to go by the US will not be putting up with too much nonsense from China.  It is also worth pointing out that as well as expressing toughness, the report also offers a reasonable carrot, which Beijing would be foolish not to accept:

“We also recognize that strategic competition does not, and should not, preclude working with China when it is in our national interest to do so. Indeed, renewing America’s advantages ensures that we will engage China from a position of confidence and strength. We will conduct practical, results-oriented diplomacy with Beijing and work to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation. We will welcome the Chinese government’s cooperation on issues such as climate change, global health security, arms control, and nonproliferation where our national fates are intertwined. As we do, we will rally our allies and partners to join us, pooling our negotiating leverage and showing our collective power and resolve.”

 

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