An Organizational Assessment of Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council: Uncharted Waters

After over a decade of drawn-out discussions and preparations, the Taiwan government’s Ocean Affairs Council (海洋委員會, OAC) was finally established on April 28, 2018. As part of ongoing reforms, the OAC integrates the planning, coordination, and implementation of maritime-related policy as well as other related affairs that were previously scattered among different agencies within the Executive Yuan. According to the OAC Organization Act (海洋委員會組織法), the newly-minted Council has three subordinate agencies: the Coast Guard Administration (海巡署, CGA), the Ocean Conservation Administration (海洋保育署, OCA), and the National Academy of Ocean Research (國家海洋研究院, NAOR). Currently, the OAC has two subordinate agencies: CGA and OCA; and the preparatory office for NAOR (國家海洋研究院籌備處) was established at the same time with the mandate to complete the formal transition process within 12 months.

Looking into the past and beyond for Ocean Affairs Council

The debate over the nature and level of the new agency responsible for maritime affairs has been raging on for more than a decade. Both the Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou governments teetered back-and-forth between whether the new organization should be a “council” or “ministry-level agency” for maritime affairs. The debate eventually settled on council, yet insiders within both major political parties still differ on the matter. The OAC was established, notwithstanding these differences.

Yet, the road ahead is not without challenges. The fact that key administrative matters, such as maritime transportation, fisheries, and maritime spatial planning remain in the original agencies (i.e., the Ministry of Transportation (交通部), the Fisheries Agency (漁業署) and the Ministry of Interior (內政部), respectively) may present jurisdictional challenges for the OAC. No one should expect that the new council can immediately solve all the cross-ministerial policy issues. Looking forward, the experience of OAC in the coordination and deliberation of ocean policies, such as drafting the Ocean Basic Law (海洋基本法) for the forthcoming session of Legislative Yuan, will be a critical benchmark for evaluating whether such “super-ministry” for maritime affairs may be necessary.

Additionally, OAC is the first cabinet-level, central government agency based in Kaohsiung City, in southern Taiwan. The notion of “southward relocation” of the central government away from Taipei is not new, as it was first proposed by former president Chen Shui-bian during his 2004 campaign. The Executive Yuan drafted several “southward relocation” plans for different agencies, but the only one ever to materialize is the Fisheries Agency -the subordinate agency in the Council of Agriculture (農委會). The Fisheries Agency moved to Chienchen Fishing Port (前鎮漁港) of Kaohsiung in 2007. Initially, this seemed to be a favorable move that brought the agency closer to the center of fishing industries. Yet, many of the Fisheries Agency’s officials soon found themselves spending the majority of their time traveling between Taipei and Kaohsiung. As the Legislative Yuan and all the other agencies of the Executive Yuan remain in northern Taiwan, the communication cost was tremendous. Group by group, the Fisheries Agency quietly moved back to its “Taipei Office” in 2008. Though the headquarter of the Fisheries Agency is officially still based in Chienchen Fishing Port, many of the divisions -including the office of director-general — are already in Taipei as of 2014.

The rather unsuccessful “southward relocation” of the Fisheries Agency may serve as a cautionary tale for OAC. Within the new agency, the core administrative units of CGA, including its headquarter (署本部), are still located in northern Taiwan. While teleconferencing may be a solution, this is not a common practice among governmental agencies in Taiwan. Distance limits the knowledge spillover that may create an unfavorable environment for policy discussion. It remains to be seen how OAC will overcome such limitations.

Restructuring and Reinforcing the Coast Guard Administration (CGA)

CGA is a pre-existing agency and has already undergone a series of restructuring. Following the restructuring, each Patrol Office (巡防局) previously under the Coastal Patrol Directorate General (海岸巡防總局) became an independent Branch (分署) — with a Northern, Central, Southern, Eastern, Kinmen-Matsu-Penghu (金馬澎) and Dongsha-Nansha (東南沙) branch. Other subordinate branches include the Fleet Branch (艦隊分署, formerly Maritime Patrol Directorate General (海洋巡防總局)), the Investigation Branch (偵防分署), which combines the Special Task Unit (特勤隊), and the Reconnaissance Brigades (查緝隊) from both of the former Directorate Generals, and finally the Education, Training & Testing Center (教育訓練與測考中心).

With its core mission as maritime law enforcement, maritime services, and maritime affairs, the “white-hulls” of CGA is often viewed as less escalatory than their “grey-hull” counterparts in the Taiwan Navy. While lacking the platform for dialogue and cooperation with other coast guards, CGA still finds room for maneuver to promote maritime security. As a member of the Western-Central Pacific Fisheries Commissions (WCPFC), CGA performs annual high-sea boarding and inspection mission on behalf of Taiwan. These missions also provide a unique channel for consolidating the friendship with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in West-Central Pacific, such as the Marshall Islands, which signed an agreement on coast guard cooperation with Taiwanthis July.

The main priority for CGA is capacity building to fulfill the mission demands. The Fleet Branch currently suffers the most from the lack of capacity. It has around 149 of patrol boats, ships, and cutters [1]. These vessels are assigned into 15 Offshore Flotillas (海巡隊), 4 Sector Flotillas (機動海巡隊, including North, Central, South and East) and 1 Fleet of Direct Access (直屬船隊). The Offshore Flotillas are responsible for patrol within 24 nautical miles (contiguous zone). Each Offshore Flotilla is usually equipped with 3 to 7 patrol boats of 20, 35, 50 to 100-ton class. The Sector Flotillas are responsible for patrol within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and are usually equipped with cutters above 500 tons. Finally, the Fleet of Direct Access is responsible for high sea and EEZ patrol and is equipped with 1,000-ton class patrol ship [2].

Nearly 15 years ago in 2003, the United Ship Design & Development Center (聯合船舶設計發展中心, now Ship and Ocean Industries R&D Center 船舶暨海洋產業研發中心) carried out a study to estimate the ship and aircraft demand of CGA (海岸巡防署艦艇及航空器需求之研究). The study recommended that each Offshore Flotilla has at least 10 patrol boats for 3-shifts patrol everyday with acceptable vessel availability. In summary, they assessed that CGA needed around 19 cutters of 500-tons (or above) class, 197 patrol boats, 5 patrol ships of 3,500-ton class, and various specific purpose boats to fulfill its mission demands in the next 15 years. Comparing the suggested numbers with the size of the current fleet, CGA is seriously under-equipped.

Therefore, in 2015 CGA announced a shipbuilding program to add 4 cutters of 4,000-ton class, 6 cutters of 1,000-ton class, 12 cutters of 600-ton class, 17 patrol boats of 100-ton class, 52 patrol boats of 35-ton class, and 50 multi-function patrol boats after the establishment of OAC. Most tenders started in the summer of 2018 with expected delivery to begin from 2019 to 2027, except the turn-key bidding for 6 cutters of 1,000-ton class and construction bidding of 17 patrol boats of 100-ton class, which are scheduled for 2019.

The ongoing discussions on the CGA’s shipbuilding program mainly focus around 4,000-ton class and 600-ton class cutters; both are new ship classes with civil-mil transition (平戰轉換) capability and expected to start the sea trial on 2020. The 4,000-ton class cutters will be the largest ever built by CGA, as a response to the increasing law enforcement mission demands in the East and South China Seas. The design reportedly will be based on a next generation frigate (also known as Project Cheng-Hai (震海計畫)) of the Taiwan Navy, and it will reserve space for operation and weapon system that can be rapidly installed during wartime. It will also include medical facility and personnel onboard for conducting humanitarian missions as “field hospital.” In accordance with the policy guideline of promoting indigenous shipbuilding (國艦國造), the NT$ 10.4 billion contract (US$ 347.9 million) of 4,000-ton class cutters has been awarded to CSBC Corporation (台灣國際造船) in July 2018.

The other new ship class, 600-ton class cutters, has been hotly debated since the program was announced. The design of these cutters will be based on Taiwan Navy’s 500-ton Tuo-Chiang class missile corvette (沱江艦), which has a catamaran design and is capable of maximum speed of 38 knots per hour. CGA values the corvette’s high speed for chasing smugglers and fast-attack capability when equipped with modular missile container bays for indigenous anti-ship missiles (i.e. HF-2 and HF-3).

The new design, however, appears to ignore the CGA’s previous development in ship design and experience in law enforcement and as such faces many criticisms internally and externally. The design of the current 700-ton class cutters, such as CG116 “Taipei” and CG112 “Nantou,” are modified from the Jin-Chiang corvette (錦江級) of the Taiwan Navy. This design could have been upgraded with years of actual deployment experience. On the other hand, the new ships’ seaworthiness under severe conditions and high freeboard (6 meter from the waterline to the upper deck level) unfavorable for boarding inspection has been questioned. As replies to these criticisms, CGA stressed that further modification in ship design would address these issues.

Besides finalizing details of ship design, this contract challenges the capabilities in financial and project management for the bidder with all 12 cutters bid at once with delivery of 1 to 2 cutters every year from 2020. To the surprise of many observers, this contract was finally awarded to Jong Shyn Shipbuilding (中信造船) in a rare 4th call for bid. The shipyard that built the prototype of Tuo-Chiang class, Lung Teh Shipbuilding (龍德造船), did not join the final bid. There is speculation that Lung Teh decided not to bid because of conflict in the schedule of the Tuo-Chiang class further production and the small profit margin for CGA’s project.

Perhaps even more critical is how will CGA fill the personnel gaps when these cutters and patrol boats are delivered. As identified by the National Audit Office (審計部) in the 2017 Performance Report (106年中央政府總決算報告), the shortage of Fleet Branch has reached 32.22 percent of its authorized complement. The increases in budget complement every year since 2002 is still unable to fill the gap and hiring externally has become the new normal.

While many issues need to be solved, CGA is undoubtedly the primary administrative agency in Taiwan for enforcing maritime sovereignty and jurisdictional rights.

The main point: Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council will need several years for establishing its own policy planning capacity and the channels of coordination and deliberation with the other agencies.


[1] In the official document of CGA, the cutter is usually referred as “frigate.” I will use “cutter” as in US Coast Guard through the article to make the distinction for law enforcement usage.

[2] See the agenda related document of Legislative Yuan (立法院議案關係文書) №887: Governmental proposal №15100–378 (院總第887號 政府提案第15100號之378).

This commentary originally appeared in Global Taiwan Brief on October 3, 2018

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