China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a focus of American… (Wu Dengfeng / New China News…)
BEIJING — When a two-engine Chinese turboprop darted over disputed islands in the East China Sea, the first foreign intrusion into Japanese airspace in more than 50 years, the People's Liberation Army was able to truthfully profess its innocence.
The tiny turboprop belonged to China Marine Surveillance, a once-obscure cog in the vast bureaucracy that has become a kind of paramilitary force in Asian waters.
A host of Chinese agencies with innocuous titles -- the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the State Oceanic Administration -- have become stealth warriors in Beijing's campaign to press its territorial claims in Asian waters.
The intrusion on Dec. 13 sent Japanese fighter jets scrambling, bringing the two Asian powers that battled each other during World War II close to outright conflict.
"We had nothing to do with it," a Chinese admiral told a U.S. military analyst at a conference last month in Singapore. "We were not consulted in advance."
American concerns about Beijing's growing maritime reach invariably focus on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a rebuilt Soviet vessel that went into operation last year. Or on the projected 10.7% increase in the defense budget for 2013, the latest in a decade of double-digit hikes. Little is said about the nonmilitary agencies that are operating under the radar.
"It is a brilliant strategy by China to establish their control over an area without firing a single shot," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, head of the Beijing office of the International Crisis Group, a think tank that works on conflict resolution.
China claims sovereignty over a U-shaped dip of the South China Sea touching on waters also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Beijing also faces territorial disputes with Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea. New techniques in underwater oil and gas extraction have enhanced the lure of otherwise barren rocks and submerged reefs.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made what many in China call "core interests" one of the themes of his new administration.
The game is to deploy civilian agencies on the front lines, giving the military plausible deniability and allowing China to avoid serious repercussions.
The People's Liberation Army's navy always hovers in the background. In one instance, Japan claims, the navy pointed its radar at a Japanese ship, and Vietnam on Monday accused China of opening fire on a fishing boat. But this for the most part has been a cold -- and wet -- war waged not with bombs or bullets but with water cannons, buoys, fishing nets, surveying equipment and seismic cables.
Not deadly, but perhaps more effective. In April, Chinese marine surveillance and fisheries command ships sailed into what is known as Scarborough Shoal to prevent the Philippine navy from arresting Chinese fishermen accused of poaching protected species. The Chinese vessels never left and have in effect blocked Philippine fishermen from a lagoon they have fished for generations. The shoal lies about 150 miles off the Philippine coast and more than 500 miles southeast of Hainan, China's southernmost island.
"If the Chinese had come into the Scarborough Shoal with their navy, the whole world would have gone crazy. It would scare the hell out of the neighbors and justify the U.S. going in," said Bonnie Glaser, a military analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The U.S. is fumbling to meet the challenge, she said: "It is not like we can send our own Coast Guard to the South China Sea."
Among the Chinese agencies, the most powerful player is the State Oceanic Administration, which oversees China Marine Surveillance. During the National People's Congress this month, the administration's control was expanded to include the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command and coast guard. Since May 2011, the administration has been headed by Liu Xigui, a former military official who worked in the coastal city of Fuzhou at the same time Xi was based there.
In a rare interview with the official New China News Agency, Liu said his administration's role is "to secure the nation's maritime rights and interests."
U.S. Navy Capt. James Fanell, a senior intelligence officer of the Pacific Fleet, at a Jan. 31 conference in San Diego called the China Marine Surveillance a proxy for the military and a "full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization."
"Chinese marine surveillance cutters have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China's expansive claims. Mundane maritime government tasks like search-and-rescue, regulating fisheries, ice breaking and criminal law enforcement are handled by other agencies," Fanell said in an unusually blunt assessment.