South China Sea Dispute Shaping Up as Coast Guard Showdown

By Dan Parsons
Prior to World War II, the Japanese navy seized hundreds of Pacific islands in an expansionist land grab that was brutally rolled back by the United States.

Wary of sparking a similar conflagration, China has begun to lean on its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to more gently press its influence on areas of the South China Sea and other regions.

China’s reliance on law-enforcement instead of military assets to assert its regional dominance has created a conundrum for the U.S. Navy, which risks sparking an international incident by using warships to check China’s westward advance.

The situation calls for increased U.S. Coast Guard presence in the western Pacific, said Capt. David Adams, commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet.

“We have no white hulls in the Pacific, hardly,” Adams said. “We are going to have to fund the Coast Guard, not to do their conventional missions, but to come and help with the white-hull problem out in the Pacific.”

Aircraft carriers and other symbols of U.S. naval might that are popular with Defense Department war planners are not effective against China’s soft-power expansionism, Adams said. While Navy officials are preparing for a high-end anti-access, area-denial style conflict, China is pursuing a hybrid approach to war that includes legal, economic, high-tech, cyber and other veiled offensive maneuvers that are unlikely to provoke a high-scale war, he said.

“Navy culture is one that envisions itself primarily conducting sweeping fleet actions across the Pacific,” Adams said. “That is not the war we are going to fight. … And we have to be cautious that selling the United States Navy on that concept is akin to selling drinks to an alcoholic. Somebody is going to have to pay the tab.”

Unlike the Navy, the Coast Guard has law enforcement authorities within the U.S. economic zone, which is why its personnel are often deployed on Navy ships.

Unfortunately for the Navy, the Coast Guard’s oceangoing fleet is not up to the task of performing its mandated duties in the Western Hemisphere and sending more ships out into the Pacific, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp said.

“We don’t have a lot more white hulls to push out into the Pacific,” he said. “What we do have is Coast Guard expertise to work with our partners in the Pacific. Our first and most important partner is the United States Navy.”

China recently created its own coast guard that was based so closely on its U.S. counterpart, its ships’ newly painted white hulls sport the same coloring and design as U.S. Coast Guard cutters.

“They’ve even painted the ships white, put the stripes on them and use the same font lettering that we use to say ‘China Coast Guard’ on them,” Papp said at a conference hosted by the Naval Institute in February.

Papp said it was unfortunate the hull designs were not patented, but that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

In March 2013, the Chinese National People’s Congress reorganized the nation’s civil maritime fleet, consolidating all fisheries and law-enforcement cutters from other agencies into a single new organization called China Coast Guard, said Navy Capt. James Fanell, director of intelligence and information operations. The Chinese coast guard is run by a civil bureau — distinct from the nation’s military command — that Fanell said was “fronting China’s expansionist activities” in the region.

The Associated Press in March reported Chinese coast guard ships were “harassing” Filipino ships in the Spratley Islands and in April, the Japanese coast guard encountered non-military Chinese ships sailing through disputed areas of the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard vessels have also been reported steaming around the  Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by multiple nations.

“Tensions in the South and East China Sea have deteriorated with the China Coast Guard playing the role of antagonist — harassing China’s neighbors while PLA Navy ships, their protectors, conduct port calls throughout the region promising friendship and cooperation, ” Fanell said. 

Chinese officials insist the Chinese navy and coast guard operations are not coordinated, but “this is simply not true,” he said.

Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian studies center, said the more streamlined Chinese coast guard is one of the largest maritime law enforcement organizations in the world.

“The presence of gray hulls — navy vessels, naval combatants — is  generally seen as being exceedingly escalatory, and for good reason,” Cheng said. “So the Chinese have been relying on what are often termed ‘white hulls’ … to underscore their claims.”

The line between Chinese law enforcement and navy vessels is often blurry. They have “cascaded” older combatant ships out of the navy, painted them white and sent them to sea as coast guard ships, Cheng said. 

“In many cases it is simply a case of literally repainting the hull from gray to white,” he said. “That is in sharp contrast to many other countries’ coast guard equivalents. So right there is a certain intimidation factor when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel shows up complete with torpedo tubes and gun turrets.”

“But no one should be under any illusion,” he added. “Typically the Chinese People’s Navy is literally right over the horizon.”

Ely Ratner, senior fellow and deputy director for the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, said China’s coast guard outnumbers other similar forces in the region, especially U.S. non-military maritime law enforcement. China can amass more ships and men and loiter for longer periods than rival coast guards, he said.

“So in my view this is military coercion, point-blank,” Ratner said.

There is room for the U.S. Coast Guard to support and operate in conjunction with allied maritime law enforcement, if not sending ships and personnel to directly counter Chinese non-military aggression, Cheng said.

“The Coast Guard is a civilian entity, and there is little reason to my mind that [it] should not exercise in conjunction with the coast guards and civilian law enforcement entities of American allies” in the Asia-Pacific region, he said.

Cheng mentioned anti-piracy, drug interdiction and combating human trafficking as missions on which the Coast Guard could team with partner nations like the Philippines and Vietnam. U.S. personnel can offer those nations lessons learned from experience performing law enforcement missions in U.S. territorial waters and around South America.

The United States has a large exclusive economic zone that extends throughout the Pacific for which the Coast Guard and Navy are responsible. At 4.5 million square miles, it is the largest EEZ of any nation on Earth. The Coast Guard is responsible for protecting U.S. economic interests in those waters and is also considering the prospect of policing the increasingly ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean.

The U.S. Coast Guard is focused on building partnerships with regional coast guards, but has been forced to perform those missions with limited resources given its mandated missions in the Western Hemisphere. Budget resources and inter-service politics also muddy the waters, though an interest exists to bolster the Coast Guard’s presence in Asia relative to the Navy, Ratner said.

Ron O’Rourke, naval affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, countered that the Coast Guard has little ability to project a greater presence beyond the Western Hemisphere but could be effective at bolstering allied forces’ maritime law enforcement capabilities.

“The Coast Guard barely has enough ships to even do its domestic missions,” O’Rourke said. “The Coast Guard’s role might be one of having its personnel contribute to activities to improve the professionalization of the coast guards in other countries.”

“I don’t think we’re doing all we can right now to improve the coast guard and maritime law enforcement capacities of the countries in the region,” he added. “We could, in fact, do a lot more and it’s simply a failure of imagination.”

Papp agreed that his service is stretched thin already, saying that the Coast Guard in coming years “really needs to focus on the Western Hemisphere.” Given both the removal of Navy ships from the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific — particularly in the trafficking zones between South and Central America — and declining budgets, Papp said the Coast Guard already is feeling hard pressed to perform adequate drug interdiction in South America.

The absence of U.S. Coast Guard ships in the Pacific has inspired other nations to form their own maritime law enforcement organizations, especially in the face of the Chinese coast guard, he said.

“Because we don’t have enough ships to push them forward … other countries are learning,” Papp said.

Papp was the first service chief to travel to Vietnam, which is creating its own coast guard as a hedge against Chinese expansionism in nearby waters.

South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines are all creating new coast guards or bolstering their existing seagoing law enforcement entities in an effort to avoid deploying naval forces against Chinese vessels, he said.

“With the rebalance to the Pacific and many of the Navy ships forward deploying — and I agree that we need our Navy to be forward deployed and ready to project power — the Coast Guard has to reassess some of the things that we’ve done,” Papp said. “We have always been present in the Pacific, but we are having to reassess, due to a tighter squeeze of the budget and fewer major ships available, where we place them."

Despite the lack of available ships, Papp said the U.S. Coast Guard remains one of the best avenues for communication with China. For 10 years, it has been interacting with other regional maritime law enforcement agencies through the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, which includes Canada, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

The U.S. Coast Guard enjoys a relationship of trust with its Chinese counterpart and they have begun working high-seas fisheries cases collaboratively, Papp said. There also is a Coast Guard captain stationed in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Another captain is being stationed at the U.S. embassy in Hanoi to act as liaison to Vietnam’s nascent coast guard.

Because U.S. interests now extend to foreign ports in Asia, from which millions of tons of goods are imported, Coast Guard personnel routinely are stationed far across the Pacific to perform the duties they traditionally have done at domestic ports, Papp said.

“The entrances of our ports are in places now like Singapore and Beijing and other places where containers are loaded and brought to our country,” Papp said. Coast Guard personnel are stationed in those ports under the International Ship and Port Security Code to perform inspections to “make sure those countries are following the proper security procedures before they load cargo that is bound for the United States.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, International, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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