Numbers Matter: China's Three 'Navies' Each Have the World's Most Ships

February 26, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaNaval PowerDefenseTechnologyStrategySouth China Sea

Numbers Matter: China's Three 'Navies' Each Have the World's Most Ships

Numerical superiority allows China’s second and third sea forces to flood the maritime gray zone in ways that its neighbors, as well as the United States, may find very hard to counter.

In building the world’s largest coast guard, China has achieved an impressive increase in its maritime capabilities. It has leveraged massive capacity for building all sizes of patrol ships, cost relief from commercial construction profits, and domestic production of most systems (including engines and electronics) to field an impressive number and variety of ships specialized for different roles and operating areas. New CCG ships capable of long-distance operations in higher seas, the largest capable of operating globally, could permit extended deployments beyond East Asia (e.g., for antipiracy or sea-lane escort). CCG modernization and expansion affords China presence and influence to further its East and South China Sea sovereignty claims, while maintaining both domestic and international law enforcement capability regionally.


Ongoing reorganization makes China’s formal Coast Guard numbers hard to extract precisely from China’s overall MLE numbers. For instance, the PAP was subordinated to the Central Military Commission (CMC) on January 1, 2018, presumably together with a large portion of China’s civil maritime forces—but Beijing has not revealed how many cutters and personnel are engaged in fisheries regulation, oil-spill response and other duties not core to the PAP. Because vessels can be shifted among different MLE organizations, it is best to take a broad approach in calculating CCG force size. In any case, China’s coast guard is clearly the world’s largest by a sizeable margin.

Today, China’s coast guard has 225 ships weighing over five hundred tons that are capable of operating offshore, and another 1,050-plus confined to closer waters, for a total of over 1,275 ships—more hulls than the coast guards of all its regional neighbors combined. In 2020, the CCG is projected to have a total of 1,300-plus ships: 260 large vessels capable of operating offshore, many capable of operating worldwide, and another 1,050-plus smaller vessels confined to closer waters. From 2005–20, this represents a fifteen-year net increase of four hundred total coast guard ships; and among them of 202 additional ships capable of operating offshore, representing 350 percent growth in the latter category. With a length of 165 meters (541 feet), a beam of twenty-plus meters (sixty-five-plus feet), and at ten-thousand-plus tons full load, China’s two Zhaotou-class cutters are the world’s largest coast-guard vessels and displace more than most modern naval destroyers.

In terms of qualitative improvement, China has now replaced virtually all its older, less capable large patrol ships. It is applying lessons learned from scrutinizing the “gold standard” U.S. and Japanese coast guards, as well as the CCG’s increasing experience operating farther offshore for longer periods. The resulting new ship features include helicopters, interceptor boats, deck guns, high-capacity water cannons and improved seakeeping.

Most newly built CCG ships have helicopter decks, some with hangars (although the CCG has very few helicopters). Many new also have quick-launch boat ramps on the fantail, allowing for rapid deployment of interceptor boats. These include roughly ten-meter-long fast interceptor boats with twin outboard engines enabling high speeds for VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure) law enforcement against fishing vessels or other ships. A number of new ships have thirty-millimeter guns mounted, with a few of the larger ships carrying seventy-six-millimeter main guns. Most recently constructed CCG ships now have high-output water cannons mounted high on their superstructure. The 2014 HYSY-981 oil rig standoff demonstrated their utility as they damaged bridge-mounted equipment on Vietnamese vessels and forced water down their exhaust funnels (although the Vietnamese have since modified their own ships to protect from such actions and installed their own high-capacity water cannons). Internet photographs indicate that many CCG ships built within the last five years have a data-link antenna (such as the HN-900) similar to those on PLAN vessels and to the U.S. Navy’s Link 11. Older CCG ships are now being retrofitted with them.

One hallmark of CCG modernization in recent years has been the clear specialization of ships and craft toward particular missions. Moreover, China’s massive shipbuilding industry—and, presumably, shipbuilding budget—have allowed the CCG to focus on a variety of designs oriented toward specific requirements, rather than building “jack-of-all-trades” ships that were more flexible but less capable of specific functions. However, all these ships and craft remain highly capable of acting in other roles, particularly those related to promoting sovereignty in disputed South and East China Sea areas.

These CCG details come from in-depth open-source research by the author and U.S. Navy analysts Joshua Hickey and Henry Holst. Presented at CMSI’s 2017 conference on “China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations,” it will be published in chapter format in a forthcoming Naval Institute–edited volume, the seventh in CMSI’s “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development” series.

The world’s other leading coast guards, those of the United States and Japan, are still more operationally capable than China’s, but they clearly have fewer ships. By comparison, using its own official metrics, the USCG’s 40,992 active-duty personnel currently crew 243 cutters, vessels that are sixty-five feet or more in length, which meets the USCG’s legal definition of a “ship” requiring a twenty-four-hour watch. This length demarcation of roughly twenty meters also mirrors international norms. For the USCG, cutters eighty-seven feet long or longer—from patrol cutters to ice breakers—conduct offshore missions. USCG personnel also operate 1,650 “boats” less than sixty-five feet long, which “usually operate near shore, on inland waterways, or attached to cutters.” Many of these are small harbor-patrol boats that mostly operate on rivers—and hence are not part of America’s second sea force. Moreover, China has more than twice America’s total length of navigable rivers, canals and other inland bodies of water: 110,000 kilometers vs. 41,009 kilometers. The MLE boats patrolling China’s inland waterways are considerably more numerous than those of the U.S. Coast Guard patrolling waterways in America. If non-seagoing vessels were similarly counted in the CCG’s fleet total, therefore, it would likewise be substantially larger than that of the USCG’s fleet total, even with all of its sub-sixty-five-foot boats included.

As of April 1, 2017, the JCG’s 13,744 personnel operate 455 vessels and craft. These include 131 patrol vessels (roughly equivalent to USCG cutters/“ships”) and 238 patrol craft (roughly equivalent to USCG “boats”). Rounding out the fleet are a variety of specialized ships: sixty-three special guard and rescue craft, thirteen hydrographic survey vessels, seven lighthouse service vessels and three training boats.

As its third sea force, China has the world’s largest maritime militia. It is virtually the only one charged with involvement in sovereignty disputes: only Vietnam, one of the very last countries politically and bureaucratically similar to China, is known to have a similar force with a similar mission. This is arguably a product of its their political system: other countries don’t use a maritime militia, because only authoritarian countries could possibly get away with deploying such a force while attempting to shroud it in “plausible deniability.” As my CMSI colleague Conor M. Kennedy has found through in-depth open-source research, the maritime militias of China and Vietnam were originally organized and tasked similarly as elements of their respective nations’ armed forces.

Hanoi’s detailed 1999 “Law on Militia and Self-Defense Forces” states that “Militia and self-defense forces are mass armed forces not detached from production and work and constitute a part of the people’s armed forces of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. . . . Marine militia and sell-defense force means a force within the core militia and self-defense force organized in coastal communes, island communes and in agencies and organizations with vessels operating at sea to perform tasks on Vietnam’s sea areas.” Article 8 states that “Tasks of militia and self-defense forces” include “To stand ready for combat, to combat and render combat services to defend their localities and workplaces; to collaborate with border guard, navy and marine police units and other forces in defending the national sovereignty and border security and the sovereignty and sovereign rights on Vietnam’s sea areas.” As for their structure, “In coastal and island communes, marine militia squads or platoons shall be organized . . . Agencies and organizations shall organize sell-defense [sic] squads, platoons, companies or battalions. Those with vessels operating at sea shall organize marine self-defense squads, platoons, flotillas or fleets.”

This content is similar to that of China’s Regulations on Militia Work, promulgated by the State Council and CMC on December 24, 1990 to replace the previous regulations of August 1978, and implemented on January 1, 1991. Article 33 states that “Militia organizations in land-sea frontier defense areas and other key combat readiness areas should, in accordance with the requirements of higher-level military organs, carry out joint defense with the PLA and the People’s Armed Police forces stationed in the area.” China’s PAFMM is a set of mariners and vessels that are trained, equipped and organized directly by the PLA’s local military commands. While at sea, these units typically answer to the PLA chain of command, and are certain to do so when activated for missions. In doing so, China is taking its third sea force to a level unmatched by any other country—even Vietnam.