China’s new Coast Guard Law portends the growing role that Coast Guard parallel forces, known as “white hulls,” will play in the Indo-Pacific, including in hotspots like the South China Sea. The law, which came into effect early this month, prescribed conditions for the use of force and destruction of structures in features and waters within or claimed by China as under its jurisdiction.
No lull in the sea
Even amid a global pandemic, the U.S.-China rivalry saw no signs of abating not least in the South China Sea. The Trump administration ramped up sail-bys and close-in air reconnaissance that Beijing deemed provocative. Last year, the U.S. conducted 10 freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and 13 transits over the Taiwan Strait. These figures in a single year exceeded all the FONOPS made during the Obama administration. While it remains to be seen whether the new Biden administration will follow suit or even raise the frequency of such activities, it already made its first foray last week with guided missile destroyer USS John McCain transiting Taiwan Strait for the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands.
Beijing, on its part, resorted to administrative measures to bolster its claims in the South China Sea, investing in building its maritime capabilities particularly in its artificial island bases and expand its influence in the region and beyond through trade, investments, and infrastructure.
The China Coast Guard was also at the forefront of implementing the Blue Sea (Bihai) 2020 initiative in April to November of last year. The campaign was aimed at halting illegal activities in the areas of marine engineering construction, offshore oil exploration, marine pollution, shipping, sea sand mining and transport, and marine environment protection. But although marine environment protection is a welcome and urgent undertaking, unilateral enforcement of domestic policy in contested waters will certainly elicit pushback from other disputants and interested powers.
Enter the white hulls
Signaling the role that the U.S. Coast Guard may play in America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, Washington released a tri-service strategy document last December which outlines how it intends to prevail over adversaries through an integrated all-domain naval power. The report argues that “contested seas require a renewed emphasis on sea control” and that the U.S. will put a premium on denying strategic gains by competitors over minimizing tactical risks. In keeping with past policy documents, the paper zeroed in on China saying that it is “the only rival with the combined economic and military potential to present a long-term, comprehensive challenge to the United States.” Hence, the report states that “Naval Service operations and force posture will focus on countering PRC malign behavior globally and strengthening regional deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.”
While the navy remains the primary actor in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, more spaces are being opened up for the country’s coast guard. Aside from Guam, Washington is contemplating basing fast response U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) cutters in American Samoa to respond to China’s growing illegal unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) in the Western Pacific. USCG also began testing unmanned surface ships in Hawaii to help in maritime domain awareness. Palau welcomed the U.S. to establish a base. USCG cutter Munro joined the 2020 RIMPAC exercises. Last month, USCG cutter Joseph Gerczak made a port call in Honolulu after undertaking expeditionary patrols in the Pacific with partners in Kiribati.
Meeting the gray zone challenge
Due to their limited patrol capacity, Pacific island states wary of their food security and concerned about their marine biodiversity are more likely to accommodate the stationing of USCG assets to thwart IUUF. More than a check to Chinese activities in the open Pacific, these developments may bolster U.S. position in the critical second island chain. Not only does China possess the world’s largest coast guard ships, it also has the world’s largest distant water fishing fleet. Hence, failure to rein in unsustainable fishing of its deep-sea fishing armada has the potential to backfire on Beijing by creating common ground for Washington and Oceanian states to join forces to guard their vast exclusive economic zones.
In Southeast Asia, a key theater for U.S.-China contest, USCG ships may be better poised to help coastal states deal with gray zone actions by state-backed maritime militias than their gray hull counterparts. The U.S. had been ramping up engagements with regional coast guards of late. In 2019, USCG Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz visited Manila and pledged support for the Philippine Coast Guard’s own build-up. In the same year, USCG cutter Bertholf – the first USCG ship to visit in seven years - engaged in exercises with its Filipino counterparts near the disputed Scarborough Shoal under the watchful eyes of a China Coast Guard vessel.
Likewise, Vietnam is due to receive a second Hamilton-class high endurance cutter from the U.S. along with an offer to train Vietnamese Coast Guard officers. Washington also transferred six patrol boats in 2019 with Hanoi ordering another 24. Last year, Washington and Hanoi also signed an agreement to strengthen the latter’s fisheries law enforcement capability.
Yet despite power asymmetry with their big and increasingly assertive northern neighbor, Southeast Asian countries may be less enthusiastic to host U.S. naval or coast guard assets compared to Pacific island states. This said, they will not hesitate to explore options to engage the U.S. and other partners as they see fit, as evidenced by the actions taken by Manila and Hanoi.
Can the waters get murkier?
The noise generated by the new Chinese Coast Guard law arises less from its proforma attempt to institutionalize a nascent maritime law enforcement agency, than its potential application to troubled hotspots like the East and South China Seas. As anyone could have anticipated, it drew the ire of China’s coastal neighbors like the Philippines and Japan. Notwithstanding improved relations in recent years, Manila lodged a diplomatic protest with China and vowed to take action should an untoward incident arising from the law’s implementation happen. It remains to be seen how the new measure will affect efforts to pursue bilateral oil and gas cooperation in the resource-rich contested sea, or ongoing ASEAN-China Code of Conduct negotiations. To the extent that it generates anxiety and sows mistrust, such a move is ill-advised and ill-timed especially as the world confronts a severe health crisis.
The employment of white hulls may signal intent to demilitarize interaction in flashpoints like the South China Sea. But inadequate caution may also expose them to risks. Beijing, for instance, railed against USCG cutter Stratton conducting missions in the Yellow and South China Seas in 2019. Similarly, should the Chinese Coast Guard, still in its infancy, act rashly or overzealously, it may raise the specter of “accidents.” This could be compounded by strong domestic nationalist pressures, poor diplomacy and a lack of leadership with cooler heads. While use of force is standard practice, their seemingly unrestrained application in choppy waters may only fuel more tensions and undercut confidence building measures. At this point, it is unlikely for China to repeal the law, but it should proceed with the utmost caution in its enforcement lest it put itself in stormier waters.