China’s deployment of an ever-growing and more sophisticated coast guard and para-military forces to adjacent waters has raised alarm bells across Washington and for its regional allies. Following the so-called “People’s War at Sea” strategy, Beijing has utilized the Chinese Coast Guard (GCC) and its Maritime Militia Forces (MMF) as a force multiplier for the rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
More crucially, however, the coast guard and para-military armada provide a pacifist veneer to China’s expanding footprint in the South and East China Seas. After all, the “white hull” GCC is designed supposedly for civilian law enforcement, while the MMF are often disguised as fishing boats.
China’s astute reliance on this potent cocktail of fishermen-cum-militia vessels and the GCC, which boasts among the largest vessels in the world, presents a major strategic conundrum to rival claimant states and external powers such as the United States.
Desperate to constrain Beijing’s maritime ambitions, the Trump administration has adopted a new counter-strategy, which is increasingly reliant on not only the US Navy (USN) but also the US Coast Guard (UCC). The upshot is the further congestion of the South China Sea tinderbox as the two superpowers battle for primacy in one of the world’s most important seascapes.
China’s Strategic Offensive
Over the past decade, China has dramatically altered the regional maritime landscape in its own favor. Beginning in late-2013, it launched an unprecedented geo-engineering project that transformed a whole host of contested atolls, rocks, and low-tide elevations into full-fledged islands.
During the first two years of the operation, China reclaimed more than 2,900 acres (1,170 hectares) of land across the South China Sea. This development took many by surprise, with even Washington helplessly observing China’s (literally) expanding influence in the area.
Over the years, China has deployed advanced weapons systems, including artilleries, surface to air missiles, and electronic jamming equipment, to the reclaimed islands, supposedly for ‘self-defense’ purposes. Beijing has steadfastly rationalized the ‘militarization’ of the disputed land features - particularly that of the Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs - as a response to the aggressive actions by the US and other rival claimant states.
As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained during a multilateral meeting in Singapore last year, "Certain non-regional countries, mainly the United States, have been sending massive strategic weaponry into this region, especially to the South China Sea, as a show of military might and putting pressure on regional countries, China included."
For him, this is “the biggest force behind China's push for militarization in this region,” since in “the face of such mounting military threat and pressure, regional countries, including China, have naturally resorted to self-preservation and self-defense, and have put in place defensive facilities.”
At the forefront of China’s efforts to assert its claims over disputed land features as well as fisheries and energy resources in the area, however, are its coast guard and para-military forces.
Despite its expanding military muscle, which is benefiting from newly constructed runways and facilities on reclaimed islands, Beijing continues to rely primarily on ‘white hull’ and fishermen-cum-militia forces to crowd out its regional rivals.
The GCC and Chinese para-military forces have been instrumental in either occupation of disputed land features or intimidation of rival claimant states. Following a months-long naval standoff between the Philippine Navy and GCC in 2012, the Chinese coast guard vessels have effectively assumed administrative control over the contested Scarborough Shoal.
The GCC also played a pivotal role during China’s latest months-long standoff with Vietnam over the energy-rich Vanguard Bank following the deployment of research vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 (Marine Geology 8), which was escorted by the 12,000-tonne armed “monster” coastguard vessel 3901 and the 2,200-tonne Chinese coastguard ship 37111.
Gray Zone Warfare
Though supposedly a civilian law enforcement agency, the GCC boasts among the world’s largest armed vessels, notably the “monster” 12,000-ton cutter 3901, which hosts its own helicopter as well as armed personnel, dwarfing even warships of neighboring states. As the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah recently complained, “Our warships are a lot smaller than those from China’s Coast Guard.”
Intimidated by China’s enlarged and modern fleet of coast guard vessels and fearful of escalating tensions with the Asian powerhouse, rival claimant states have struggled to adopt effective countermeasures to defend their own interest.
In response to the shifting regional strategic landscape, the Trump administration has adopted a three-fold response in the South China Sea. Firstly, it granted expanded policy autonomy to the Pentagon to challenge Beijing’s maritime ambitions, including through increasingly regularized and aggressive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied islands.
Secondly, the Pentagon, beginning late last year, has warned that it will begin treating China’s maritime militia forces as an extension of the PLAN, thus potentially applying military rules of engagement to China’s para-military and coast guard vessels. This operational change was confirmed and codified by the chief of US naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, earlier this year, as the USN promised a “more muscular” approach to China’s ‘gray zone’ strategy.
Additionally, following the swarming of Philippine-claimed islands in the Spratlys, as well as the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a suspected Chinese militia vessel earlier this year, Washington has openly warned that its mutual defense treaty with Manila also covers ‘gray zone’ provocations and skirmishes.
Crucially, even the USCG has now joined the fray, participating in the Pentagon’s FONOPs, ramping up expeditionary deployments, expanding its Indo-Pacific fleet with new fast-response cutters in Guam, and conducting regular joint exercises with allies and partners across the Asia-Pacific.
As the Commandant of the USGC Admiral Karl Leo Schultz told me during the Halifax International Security Forum in November, “There [are] ongoing discussions, ongoing planning efforts” together with the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command to constrain China’s ‘gray zone’ activities in the area.
“We are keenly focused on those likeminded partners…building [a] regional approach,” he added, emphasizing the USGC’s expanding capacity-building efforts among regional partners, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. “We have partnered up in training [regional allies] to enhance security in the region.”
In recent weeks, the USGC vessels, namely USCG’s Walnut (WLB-205) and fast response cutter USCGC Joseph Gerczak (WPC-1126), conducted joint missions with Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Choules and Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Otago in the Western Pacific, while the USGC participated in the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral sama-sama naval exercises in the Philippines.
During his late-October visit to Manila, Admiral Schultz revealed that the USGC is considering even larger and more regular deployments to the Western Pacific and the South China Sea as part of Washington’s “whole of government solutions” in the area.
“We are looking at taking that proof of concept 30-day operation and pushing that probably into a little longer duration in the future,” the USGC chief said, underscoring the threat posed by China. “In the face of coercive and antagonistic behavior from China in disputed waters, the U.S Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership at both the professional and personal levels.”
For the first time since the end of Cold War, the USGC has joined the Pentagon against a strategic rival in East Asia. This marks a dramatic shift in the Indo-Pacific struggle for mastery.