The risk of conflict in the South and East China Sea is substantial. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all have competing claims over territory and jurisdiction. With the exception of China, all the aforementioned nations have based their claims on their shoreline. China, as evidenced by the “nine-dash line”, has based its claims on historical events. Because of the relative weakness of the claims, China feels the need to increase efforts to protect their claims. To meet this need in the maritime domain, China merged five of its maritime law enforcement agencies into one agency. This reorganized China Coast Guard was called an “iron fist” by Chinese officials. This is keeping to Sun Tzu’s advice that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. To keep from fighting, China intends to use this new, centrally controlled, paramilitary maritime agency to assert her authority and jurisdiction in the waters that are in dispute.
In April 2012, the Philippine Navy attempted to arrest a group of Chinese fishermen who were operating in a disputed area. Despite the buildup of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Chinese warships were not sent to respond. Instead, unarmed cutters were the first vessels to arrive followed soon after by fisheries law enforcement vessels. The Philippine Navy warships were replaced by a coast guard ship. That ship eventually withdrew as well claiming the need to prepare for typhoon season. The Chinese vessels remained and no Chinese nationals were arrested. China had asserted her sovereignty with unarmed vessels and a potentially violent confrontation was averted.
The East and South China Seas are emerging as a contested space between China and her neighbors, specifically, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea. This is in mostly due to the area being a prime fishing grounds as well as the potential for large hydrocarbon reserves. In light of this, China’s naval attention appears to be turning more to defense of territorial claims. A few days into the aforementioned standoff with the Philippines, Chinese Major General Luo Yuan argued in a party publication for a stronger Chinese coast guard. Luo argued that the disparate maritime law enforcement agencies were perceived as weak by China’s regional competitors. This perception, led directly to the Philippines attempt to arrest the Chinese fishermen. It was also emboldening the Vietnamese to assert their claims as well. He asserted that because of this, China’s national dignity was being “violated”.
In March of 2013, China announced the merger of several maritime law enforcement agencies into one China Coast Guard (CCG) under the auspices of the new National Ocean Administration. These agencies, commonly called the “Five Dragons”, were the Public Security Ministry Coast Guard, Maritime Safety Administration, Marine Surveillance, Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the Customs Administration. The Chinese felt that a maritime law enforcement agency was a better way to defuse crises and prevent possible conflicts with their neighbors. They viewed the Japanese and South Korean coast guards as strong and well-equipped agencies that could effectively assert their respective countries’ claims. China realized that the Five Dragons were not able to provide a unified maritime force in what has become an ever increasingly complex situation. The US Coast Guard (USCG) was viewed by Chinese defense officials as the most powerful in the world. Judging by the agencies that were merged; it would appear that the USCG was a model for the new CCG. A senior PLAN official called the merger the creation of an “iron fist” for China. Immediately after four vessels received their new coast guard livery, they were dispatched to the East China Sea to patrol waters off of disputed islands. In August 2013, CCG vessels patrolling the Senkaku Islands drove off Japanese fishing vessels that were being escorted by the Japanese Coast Guard.
By using CCG vessels to enforce their sovereignty claims, the Chinese are able to state that they seek a peaceful path while “firmly safeguarding” their interests. Using PLAN assets to patrol disputed areas, would give lie to the idea of seeking a peaceful path. Since the bar of military conflict is now higher than it was during the cold war, all the players in the East and South China Sea must remain focused on preventing the disputes from reaching that threshold.
China Coast Guard vessels also serve a political goal. By using law enforcement forces, the impression is made to both domestic and international observers that China is “administering” the disputed areas. China’s unilateral seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea may stem from similar motivations. The ban helps China demonstrate authority over the area. It is for this reason that prior to the merger, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command was second only to China Marine Surveillance in asserting maritime sovereignty. There is no practical reason for such a large area, far from the Chinese coast, having a fishing ban imposed on it. The purpose though is to get foreign countries to accept that there is a ban giving China de-facto control over the area. This is the same tactic that’s being used with the recent announcement of an “air defense identification zone” that covers the Senkaku Islands. Even though “air defense” is in the title, it’s really just an identification zone. That is an administrative function that China is trying to impose just like the fishing ban. Both tactics have the same goal of giving the impression of authority over the area and making others acquiesce to the demands of the Chinese government.
Some may claim that the use of coast guard vessels is of little importance since they will be of little use in a military conflict. The PLAN is also developing some impressive capabilities such as a new aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines and several modern surface combatants. The Chinese have also undertaken an aggressive shipbuilding program to strengthen the new coast guard. Currently, they plan on building 30 cutters in the next five years. That is a building program the US Coast Guard would certainly be envious of. Granted, armed cutters are no match for a modern ship of the line. That is not what they are for though. They act as a tripwire for the PLAN. In the case of a military response to Chinese sovereignty patrols, CCG vessels would at least serve as a delaying force until the PLAN could arrive on scene. Further, any country that uses its navy to sink CCG vessels would run the risk of international condemnation for the appearance of punching below its weight class.
The creation and buildup of the CCG has spurred other regional powers into action. The most recent change happened in Vietnam. In August, 2013, the Vietnamese government announced that that the Vietnam Marine Police (VMP) would be strengthened and renamed the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG). This is in line with the Vietnamese strategy of using an agency that is arguably not directly linked to the military to address Chinese incursions. By using the VCG to counter the CCG, Hanoi can be seen as meeting the threat without escalating.
In what should be of interest to the PACOM commander; Hanoi explained that changing the agency name from a marine police to a coast guard was to facilitate collaboration with similar agencies in the Asia-Pacific region. The USCG is now looking to assign a Lieutenant to the defense attaché office in the U.S. Embassy to Vietnam. The major duty of the new position is to assist the Vietnamese with their new coast guard. It makes sense for Vietnam to reach out to the most powerful coast guard in the world to develop theirs. It also sends a message to the other regions that the U.S. is engaged in the issue and wants to keep it from escalating to a military conflict.
In terms of capabilities and missions, most world navies have more in common with the U.S. Coast Guard than they do with the U.S. Navy. This holds true in the Asia Pacific region as well. Since the various states are protecting their claims by using paramilitary forces to enforce their authority at sea, the USCG provides a model that is within the means of those states to emulate. By focusing on enhancing the capabilities of the regional coast guards vice the navies, the risk of emboldening the Phillippines and Vietnam to challenge China decrease.
The soft power image of the USCG should also continue to be used as a means to foster relationships with the CCG. Historically, the USCG has worked with the legacy services of the CCG in regional exercises as well as fisheries law enforcement. Both the United States and China actively participate in international efforts to deter the practice of large-scale high seas drift net fishing as encouraged by a 1992 United Nations moratorium. As recently as August 2012, the Coast Guard hosted enforcement officers from the China Fishery Law Enforcement Command on board USCG cutters patrolling in the North Pacific Ocean. Having foreign law enforcement personnel on board cutters is routine. This practice should be extended to include more Asian Pacific states with the goal of training their forces to competently enforce their laws as well as to show U.S. commitment to non-escalation in the region.
This Coast Guard to coast guard contact would strengthen the cooperative relationship with China. This U.S.-China is of more consequence than any other in the region since the repercussions of a Sino-American conflict would be far reaching.
The U.S. has a huge economic stake in ensuring that the China Sea disputes do not escalate into a military conflict. Each year, $5.3 trillion of cargo pass through the region. $1.2 trillion of that is U.S. trade. If a disruption of trade route were to occur, the economic effects would ripple throughout region and the West.
As powers in the East and South China Seas continue to build up their maritime law-enforcement presence and capabilities, the possibility of a major military conflict is low. The potential for a violent clash (accidental or calculated) remains high. A U.S. decision to carry out military exercises in the disputed waters, though risky and seemingly confrontational, may help prevent Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and other countries from confronting China head on. The U.S. has never shied away from exercising freedom of navigation worldwide. It should continue to do so in the disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. With the regional powers relying on maritime law enforcement agencies to protect their claims, the U.S. should use the same tactic. Use the U.S. Coast Guard, working with other coast guards to show the U.S. flag while the U.S. Navy stays just on the horizon. This approach respects Sun Tzu’s advocacy of subduing the enemy without fighting.
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