South China Sea claimants are awaiting a decision by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in an arbitration case on the legality of the Chinese government’s claims. But regardless of how the UN tribunal decides, South China Sea disputes won’t go away anytime soon. Military activity in the South China Sea is expanding, increasing the risk of “dangerous brinksmanship” over the islands and reefs scattered throughout the region. While the United States Navy has taken the lead in responding to regional military activity, we believe that coast guard-coast guard exchanges can reduce the risk of conflict, while still assuring regional partners of American dedication in the South China Sea.
Over the last year, China has conducted dredging activities at an unprecedented scale, using the newly-built islands to base missile systems and military aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has conducted substantial drills in the region. India has considered joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea, and the Philippines and Vietnam have considered similar cooperation. Just last week, the French defense minister called on European countries to have a “regular and visible” presence in the region to maintain freedom of navigation.
The United States has also long been active in the South China Sea, conducting known freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-controlled features in October 2015 and in January and May 2016. In April, the U.S. Air Force stationed four A-10 Warthogs—which carry one of the most powerful aircraft guns ever built—in the Philippines, sending a clear signal to China that the United States is prepared to deal with military conflict in the South China Sea.
The U.S. military has increased the presence and visibility of aircraft and naval vessels to assure regional partners that the United States remains committed to their security, going tit-for-tat with the Chinese military in force escalation. Recent expansion of the Chinese Coast Guard marks a pivot point for America’s posturing, however. Chinese Coast Guard cutters—although lacking sufficient armament to challenge a U.S. Navy vessel in direct combat—are capable of meaningfully affecting the situation in the South China Sea. Lots of ink has been spilled about how China’s reclamation activities “change facts on the ground,” but Chinese Coast Guard activities do at least as much to alter the reality in the South China Sea. When the Chinese Coast Guard threatens or actually uses force to enforce Chinese law within areas that Zhongnanhai claims are their waters, they are effecting functional control of the region.
The islands claimed by the countries surrounding the South China Sea have little intrinsic value—their value hinges upon the effective assertion of sovereignty and subsequent control over surrounding waters. With approximately $5 trillion worth of international trade passing through the region annually, an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas located under the region, and nearly 10 million tons of fish caught in the South China Sea each year, the control of these waters is extremely important to regional economies.
Coast guard cutters enable governments to enforce law and assert sovereignty claims without the overt presence of a warship. This ability to maintain control over an area, without fear of an impending attack, offers an entirely different set of tactics compared to the involvement of a naval vessel. Cutters and the embarkable boarding parties they carry can effectively control merchant vessels within their jurisdiction.
China is not the only South China Sea claimant expanding its coast guard activities. In March, an Indonesian Coast Guard vessel apprehended a Chinese fishing vessel illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. The Chinese Coast Guard responded by ramming the apprehended vessel, freeing it from Indonesian control. Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia have all expanded their coast guards in recent years, and the United States has committed to selling more cutters to partners in the region.
Continuing the United States’ current tactic of mirroring Chinese show of force in the South China Sea by deploying Coast Guard assets to the region would be a mistake.
Conducting law enforcement activities in certain parts of the South China Sea on behalf of regional allies and partners would involve a recognition of those countries’ territorial claims, something the United States government has been unwilling to do. And while interactions between the PLAN and the U.S. Navy are tense, they exist within a set of predictable, well-defined rules that govern the way the navies of different countries handle encounters.
Interactions between military vessels and civilians, on the other hand, are inherently volatile, as civilian ships are not as well trained and regimented as naval vessels—nor are they governed by the same established procedures or subject to as robust government oversight. As Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, director of operations for U.S. Pacific Command, recently pointed out, it is highly unlikely that an interaction between military vessels sparks a conflict in the South China Sea. Civilian vessels, however, are another story. “My worst maritime experiences have been with fishing boats,” Montgomery said. “The highest risk is associated with non-military vessels.” Compounding this risk, any action taken by the U.S. Coast Guard towards Chinese civilians would be a propaganda victory for the Chinese government, cementing their claims of American aggression.
The United States is not left without options. By training and equipping the coast guards of our regional partners, the United States can help them counter control of commerce in the South China Sea by the growing Chinese Coast Guard. The United States has worked alongside Pacific partners in a number of exercises in the past, including coast guard training with the Philippines in 2015, the U.S. Navy training operation Exercise Balikatan in 2016, and the training of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force for expeditionary warfare. While in Vietnam last month, President Obama acknowledged the importance of the Vietnamese Coast Guard, stating that the United States would continue to train them in maritime law enforcement in order to improve capabilities in the South China Sea.
These trainings are designed as responses to specific Chinese actions. For example, during this year’s Exercise Balikatan, the United States, Australia, and the Philippines conducted “a simulated gas and oil platform recovery raid in the South China Sea”—a clear counter to China’s positioning of an oil platform in disputed waters south of the Spratly Islands in 2014. At the same time, by increasing the professionalism of the maritime law enforcement forces of claimants, trainings serve to mitigate the spectre of conflict in the South China Sea. By continuing to train and support the coast guards of regional partners, the United States will contribute to countering Chinese claims,while reassuring partners and allies of our dedication to our regional commitments—in a way that reduces potential conflict between U.S. forces and Chinese sailors and civilians.