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China Streamlines Maritime Law Enforcement Amid Island Disputes

China Streamlines Maritime Law Enforcement Amid Island Disputes
An image of the Chinese flag and sailors standing on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China sea is displayed on a big screen in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

March 11 (Bloomberg) -- China brought the law-enforcement arms of its maritime agencies under one body, a move aimed at protecting the country’s interests as it presses territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

The State Oceanic Administration will oversee the coast guard, fisheries law-enforcement and the smuggling police, which now fall under separate ministries, a report to the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, said yesterday. The administration also has a law enforcement arm.

The decision signals that China wants to better organize its maritime assets as it wrangles with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in territorial disputes. The U.S. has expressed concern that an accident or miscommunication could lead that sparring to escalate further.

“The recent tension has convinced the central authorities to better coordinate those agencies,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “There’s been growing concern among observes including foreign governments about whether those agencies were coordinated or not. We have evidence that they are not.”

The beefed-up maritime administration is part of a broader overhaul of the government that was announced yesterday and is set to be approved March 14.

Low Efficiency

The planned changes will “solve the problems of low efficiency in maritime law enforcement” and “improve protection and use of oceanic resources,” the report said.

Tensions between China and its neighbors have raised concern that competing territorial claims will disrupt economic ties in the region. The conflict with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, in an area that may hold enough oil to keep China running for 45 years, has damaged a $340 billion trade relationship between Asia’s two biggest economies.

Chinese law enforcement vessels have conducted numerous patrols this year around the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. That’s fueled questions about the government’s intentions, U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on March 5.

“I am particularly concerned that the activities around the Senkaku Islands could lead to an accident and miscalculation and escalation between China and Japan,” Locklear said. “The close proximity of ships and aircraft from all sides of these disputes raises the risks of escalation.”

In July, Vietnam protested China’s plans to set up a military garrison on a disputed island in the South China Sea. The Philippines in January sought United Nations arbitration over China’s assertion of sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

Hours after the maritime reorganization was announced yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that three Chinese Marine Surveillance Ships had begun a joint ship-helicopter patrol in the South China Sea.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Nerys Avery in Beijing at; Nicholas Wadhams in Beijing at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at

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