Shaky Peace in the Pacific: The Militarisation of Coast Guards in the South China Sea
The militarisation of the South China Sea has been completed. China is capable of controlling the sea, and the only way it could be ejected from fortified islands and artificial reefs, if it did not want to be, would be by war with the US. Furthermore, the Chinese Navy (the People's Liberation Army Navy or PLAN) is growing. It has ambitious ship-building plans to support the claim it now has through the militarisation of the South China Sea and defend its supply lines further afield.1
All this is understandably worrying to China’s neighbours, with which it has many territorial disputes. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan all have good reason to be concerned by China’s power. It is also a worry for America, which has benefited from free movement in the Asia-Pacific region, cooperates with most of China’s neighbours, and remembers Pearl Harbour, when another Asian navy decided to redress the balance of power in the Pacific.
Happily, competition in the South China Sea remains peaceful. China has taken over unoccupied rocks in the sea and built them up, without violence. The Chinese navy could easily take on its neighbours’, meaning they must go through the courts to complain about Chinese incursions into their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Military recourse is impossible without US support.
One logical, but potentially dangerous, response to China’s expansion and militarisation of the South China Sea, has been the strengthening of coast guards in the region. Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan have all taken steps to improve their coast guards, as has China.
China has recently launched the two largest ships operating in coast guards anywhere in the world, both approximately 12,000 tons. It has been adding former People's Liberation Army Navy ships to its fleet, such as the Type 054A Jiankai II frigate, which has participated in anti-piracy patrols and Sino-Russian naval exercises. The size of these vessels is pertinent - in coast guard activity ships are often used as rams or barriers. A 12,000 ton vessel is hard to move.2
Like its peers, China has also been rationalising the organisation of its coast guard, from nine organisations into one. Xi Jinping has taken direct control of the coast guard, as he has with other branches of the Chinese military. This seems sensible, but the potential of easy coordination between the CCG and the PLAN might make Vietnam’s or Taiwan’s coast guards and navies concerned, the same way if Taiwan’s and China’s police forces were facing each other, with the People’s Liberation Army poised nearby and led by the same person.3
Taiwan, only 110 miles from the Chinese mainland, has commissioned two new 3,000 ton coast guard ships, with 40mm and 20mm guns. One is to serve in the Spratly Islands, where China has been developing its artificial reefs. The other is to monitor Japan, which is also perceived as entering Taiwan’s EEZ, particularly in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Taiwan’s minister of Coast Guard Administration has emphasised the civil, not military, role of the Taiwanese Coast Guard but if there is conflict it will ‘not concede’. There is a focus in protecting fishermen, and preventing Chinese fishing in Taiwanese waters.4 We know China uses its fishing fleet, the largest in the world, for scouting and harassing ships of other navies (the so-called Chinese maritime militia), so Taiwan clarifying its rules of engagement is good, leaving less ambiguity for China to exploit.
The Filipino Coast Guard has begun hiring veterans from its other armed services to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge, and keep them in uniform to delay their pension payments. There are many advantages to bringing trained men and women into the coast guard, but it might have an effect on the civil nature of the coast guard in the same way a police force hiring soldiers might be changed.5 The Philippines has also added several very old US Navy ships to their navy. While these ships are not going into the Philippine Coast Guard, it should be noted the ships are so old the PLAN could destroy them from over the horizon, with anti-ship missiles. Therefore their main use will be in terms of policing (i.e. coast guarding duties), particularly in deterring the Chinese maritime militia, and anti-piracy and smuggling operations. And regardless of the fact the new ships can’t stand up to the People's Liberation Army Navy, they were free - it would have cost the US Navy more to scrap them than to give them to Manila.6
Vietnam has codified its coast guard laws, clarifying when it can open fire, and what its roles and responsibilities are.The Vietnamese coast guard has also been building ties with other coast guards, including the US coast guard (USCG). Vietnam has had trouble with China’s maritime militia as the two countries wrangle over hydrocarbon deposits in disputed waters. A clearer legal framework for the Vietnamese coast guard should prevent misunderstandings between the two and allow their coast guards to work in close proximity more safely.7
The USCG’s role in the militarisation of the South China Sea is increasing. There are plans to incorporate USCG ships into US Navy Freedom of Navigation operations to show waters claimed by China are actually free for anyone to sail through. As with the CCG cooperating too closely with the PLAN, this could undermine the civil nature of coast guards. It would also justify Chinese attempts to portray the Americans as the aggressors (after all, the US’s coast is in a different hemisphere). On the other hand, the USCG and the CCG have a good working relationship and proximity might enhance that, reducing the chances of miscommunication and escalation.8 The USCG could also cooperate with coast guards of China’s neighbours, spreading knowledge and adding technology and muscle. China might be less willing to push around a USCG ship than a Filipino one.9
What accounts for this increase in coast guards throughout the South China Seas? Firstly, there are lots of problems in the region which coast guards have traditionally handled. The South China Sea is crowded. Ships stray into the wrong waters. Coast guards are needed to set them straight. They also need to fight illegal fishing, smuggling and piracy. Climate change and natural disasters also pose a threat which coast guard ships can help with: frigates and cutters are far more useful for search and rescue than attack submarines. This lesson was learnt by the Chinese during the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. 10
Secondly, China’s illegal militarisation of the South China Sea is a fait accompli and impossible to wind back without war with America. The PLAN is enormous. The CCGis enormous. China also has its civilian maritime militia. China’s neighbours cannot compete militarily, and so must turn to other options. One is to use international laws of the sea to protect their EEZs and other rights, but this is slow and inefficient, and decisions reached in the Hague have a limited ability to actually shape what China does on the other side of the world. Therefore strengthened coast guards serve to keep China at a distance without the need to escalate to military force, and denying China the opportunity to do likewise.11 Coast guards have a clear legal basis and it is this combination of legal grounding and on-the-spot presence which allows the much smaller countries of the South China Sea to defend themselves. Strengthening coast guards and developing partnerships with neighbours and the US, should allow them to avoid picking naval fights with China they cannot win, and enable them to keep the competition peaceful and legal, where they have a better chance of winning.