For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the US Coast Guard (USCG) is actively joining the US Navy to constrain the maritime ambitions of a rival superpower in the Indo-Pacific, broadening America’s reach in disputed waterways.

China’s deployment of increasingly sophisticated naval forces to the South China Sea has driven the US to reassess its strategy, a recalibration of force that could tilt the contested maritime region towards more near-term instability.

In recent weeks the USCG has rapidly expanded its deployment to joint exercises with regional partners, aimed at deterring China’s “gray zone” provocations by using paramilitary and coast guard vessels to push its claims.

“There are ongoing discussions, ongoing planning efforts” to support the US Indo-Pacific Command’s (INDO-PACOM) operations in the South China Sea, Admiral Karl Leo Schultz, commandant of the USCG, told the author in a recent interview.

“We have partnered up in training [allies] to enhance security in the region,” the USCG chief added, reiterating the need for capacity-building among Indo-Pacific partners, including among China’s rivals in the South China Sea. “We are keenly focused on those likeminded partners…building [a] regional approach.”

The USCG’s sense of urgency derives from Beijing’s systematic efforts to dominate adjacent waters and intimidate rival claimant states through its increasingly powerful China Coast Guard (CCG), a “white hull” fleet deployed reputedly for purely civilian law enforcement purposes.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship at sea. Photo: AFP

The CCG boasts the world’s largest coast guard vessels, notably its “monster” 12,000-ton cutter 3901, which dwarfs in size neighboring countries’ naval warships.

“Our warships are a lot smaller than those from China’s Coast Guard,” Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Saifuddin Abdullah recently said, underscoring concerns among the sea’s rival claimants.

Based on the so-called “People’s War at Sea” strategy, China is relying not only on its rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), but also coast guard and fishermen-cum-militia coast guard vessels to occupy disputed land features and resources in the sea.

Unwilling to risk military confrontation with a more powerful China, rival claimant states such as the Philippines and Malaysia have struggled to respond to aggressive maneuvers by Chinese militia and coast guard forces.

Indeed, the CCG played a crucial role during the recent months-long standoff between China and Vietnam over the Vanguard Bank, at which Beijing deployed its 2,200-tonne Chinese coastguard ship 37111 and the 12,000-tonne coastguard vessel 3901, which hosts a helicopter and large number of troops.

At the height of the standoff, as many as 20-armed vessels squared off against each other, the closest two rival South China Sea claimants have come to an armed exchange in recent years.

South China Sea-Map-Benham Rise-Map-2017

Following a months-long naval stand-off between the Philippines and China at the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the CCG was also deployed to enforce Beijing’s de facto occupation of the disputed land feature, which lies just 100 nautical miles from Manila’s shores.

Cognizant of regional states’ increasing helplessness vis-à-vis China’s armada of coast guard and paramilitary forces, US President Donald Trump’s administration has made two key policy changes for the South China Sea.

Aside from granting greater policy autonomy to the US Navy to regularly conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) against China’s expansive claims, the Pentagon has also started to treat China’s paramilitary and coast guard vessels as arms of the PLAN.

This policy shift was confirmed earlier this year by Admiral John Richardson, chief of US naval operations, when he warned Beijing against “obstructing one another, driving our ships in front of one another, throwing obstacles in front of the ship”, and promised a “more muscular” response to China’s sea provocations.

The upshot has been the application of military rules of engagement to more aggressively counter and maneuver against Chinese coast guard and militia forces.

Washington has also openly warned that China’s “gray zone” aggression, meaning operations that do not clearly constitute war, could nonetheless fall under its mutual defense treaty obligation with its treaty ally the Philippines. The announcement came after the sinking of a Filipino vessel by a suspected Chinese militia boat earlier this year.

The US Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf moored at Hong Kong on April 15, 2019, from where it made a high-profile transit of the Taiwan Strait. Photo: AFP

In another major shift in American regional policy, the USCG has also joined the Pentagon’s FONOPs in the region, including in the Taiwan Straits, amid rising tensions with China in the past year.

Moreover, the USCG is also regularizing and expanding the deployment of expeditionary missions to the Indo-Pacific, including placement of three fast-response cutters in Guam, as well as ramped up joint exercises with allies and partners in the Western Pacific.

In October, the USCG’s fast response cutter USCGC Joseph Gerczak (WPC-1126) and Walnut (WLB-205) conducted joint missions with Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Otago, Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Choules and South Pacific partners. The same month also saw the USCG join the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral Sama-Sama naval exercises in the Philippines.

The exercises were nominally designed to promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance maritime interoperability but were clearly pointed at China.

The USCG is also helping regional partners to develop and improve their own coast guard capabilities. That has been seen in USCG assistance with the maintenance of the decommissioned USCG Morgenthau (WHEC-722), which was transferred to the Vietnam Coast Guard along with 24 so-called Metal Shark patrol boats as part of a 2017 strategic aid package.

US-Vietnam naval cooperation is blossoming, with speculation the two sides may upgrade their relations to a “strategic partnership” later this year, amid shared concerns vis-à-vis China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

A Philippine naval officer stands guard during the arrival of a US naval vessel before US-Philippine joint naval exercises in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“In the face of coercive and antagonistic behavior from China in disputed waters, the US Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership at both the professional and personal levels,” US Admiral Shultz said during his visit to Manila in October to oversee the Sama-Sama exercises.

“That’s about almost 2,400 miles distance, so it demonstrated our expeditionary capabilities of these new fast response cutters.” he said in response to a question about the USCG’s deployment in the Western Pacific.

When asked about threats posed by China’s militarization of the sea disputes, the admiral said: “We see man-made islands where there weren’t islands before, we see runways on those islands, we see anti-ship cruise missiles and other military capabilities that don’t match [China’s peaceful] rhetoric.”