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Foreign Policy

How the Gray Area Contest between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea Can Become the Norm

Aug 09 , 2019
  • Chen Xiangmiao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Since the first half of this year, the United States has gradually deployed its Coast Guard to the South China Sea, portending the normalization of the gray area contest between China and the United States.

In 2016, the United States discussed the deployment of its Coast Guard to the South China Sea to deal with China’s gray areas, namely the maritime militia and coast guard. In the past three years, with the deterioration of China-U.S. relations and greater competition between the two countries in the South China Sea, this move has gained support. In March, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf sailed through the Taiwan Strait. In May, U.S. and Philippine coast guard forces held an exercise in the waters near Huangyan Island for the first time in seven years. Then, in late June, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander Linda Fagan said that Coast Guard Cutters Bertholf and Stratton had been deployed in conjunction with other U.S. military vessels in Japan’s Yokosuka Naval Base to help law enforcement in the South China Sea and capacity-building in the fisheries enforcement realm, as well as to monitor China’s maritime militia. All this lays bare the U.S.’s intention to deploy its Coast Guard to the South China Sea. It is worth noting that the U.S. Coast Guard has received financial support from Congress to the Pentagon and the White House to enter the South China Sea. These are indications that the deployment of the U.S. Coast Guard to the South China Sea will become the norm.

The international community generally believes that the deployment of the U.S. Coast Guard is meant to upgrade U.S. military operations in the South China Sea. It may also indicate an adjustment to the U.S.’s South China Sea policy.

First, the U.S. is shifting from an approach that uses hard power and confrontation to one that uses soft power plus select hard measures, as well as some purely soft power and confrontation. In the past two years, its main policy line has been to suppress China’s freedom of navigation. The use of American warships and aircrafts in the South China Sea is a kind of force display, the logic being that might is right. In comparison, the coast guard, as law enforcement, is a paramilitary force, but it still is essentially soft power. In other words, the focus of the contest between the two sides in the South China Sea will shift from who is stronger to whose legal principles are more reasonable to the international community. Of course, the United States will not abandon its use of sea and air power as deterrents, but this approach will be a deterrence from behind.

Second, the policy objectives of the U.S. military in the South China Sea are shifting from curbing China’s power expansion and maintaining the U.S.’s regional power advantage to maintaining its overwhelming advantages in force and ensuring its long-term stable presence in the South China Sea. Compared with U.S. naval and air forces, the U.S. Coast Guard is obviously inferior, but its deployment and operational expenses and diplomatic risks are relatively low. This is in line with President Trump’s plan to slash global hegemonic costs while still helping the U.S. military achieve a long-term stable presence in the South China Sea and maintaining the U.S. military balance with China in the region.

Third, the country’s policy has gradually transitioned from unilateralism to multilateralism. After 2010, both Obama’s and Trump’s administrations have sought to contain China’s expansion in the South China Sea with multilateral and bilateral tools. Since Trump took office, he has encouraged allies such as the Philippines, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom to participate in joint freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. However, due to their respective strategic considerations and interests, the countries instead adopted a roundabout strategy to work with the United States through independent unilateral maritime actions. However, the United States has successfully used cooperation between coast guards to reduce the sensitivity of joint operations, eliminating a great concern of its allies and partner countries. At present, the United States has not only established a cooperative coast guard relationship with the Philippines, but it has also conducted exchanges with the Coast Guard in Vietnam. The United States provided Vietnam with 24 coast guard vessels and enabled exchange visits. Through joint training, strength building, maintenance of waterway safety, and environmental protection between Coast Guards, the United States can be expected to achieve joint operations with countries within and outside of the region in the name of law enforcement and the maintenance of freedom of the high seas.

Along with the normal presence of the U.S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea, the paramilitary contest between China and the United States around coast guards is likely to continue, possibly deteriorating into full competition and confrontation.

With the strong and regular deployment of the U.S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea, the entanglement between the coast guards and fishing boats at sea is bound to increase. At present, the United States has clearly stated that the primary purpose of the two ships at the Yokosuka base is to monitor China’s maritime militia. Therefore, the U.S. Coast Guard may interfere in the China Coast Guard’s cruise enforcement activities in the inner waters of the South China Sea, especially in the waters near Ren’ai Reef, Huangyan Island, Tiexian Reef, and Qiongtai Reef, as well as China’s traditional fishing activities in the area. It should also be noted that the two countries’ coast guards still lack rules for maritime encounters like those that have been established for encounters between the navies. Once they meet, they will face difficulties in how to maintain proper identification, self-discipline, standardized actions, and effective communication.

In addition, with the U.S. Coast Guard entering the South China Sea in the name of law enforcement, the legal contest between China and the United States in the South China Sea will gradually increase. In particular, the United States believes that China should abide by the South China Sea arbitration with the Philippines, but China does not accept, participate in, or recognize it. In the future, the conflict between the U.S.’s and China’s coast guards in the South China Sea will be based on which side has greater legitimate legal basis for its actions and presence.

Finally, the competition between the network of regional coast guards will intensify. For now, countries inside and outside the region such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and Australia, tend to support the arbitral award and the U.S. military’s actions in the South China Sea. The United States will continue use coast guard cooperation to build a network of alliances and partner countries that target China, meaning that China-U.S. interactions in the South China Sea will increasingly resemble a Cold War-style confrontation.

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