Can the U.S. Coast Guard Take on the South China Sea?


Earlier this week, David Barno and Nora Bensahel laid out the ways the United States can step up its efforts to counter assertive Chinese actions in the South China Sea. We agree with their assessment that China is in large part responsible for an escalation of tensions in the region and that the actions the U.S. government has taken in response have thus far had little effect. And we believe that a number of their policy proposals — such as a focus on U.S. military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam, which we are already seeing — would be helpful in countering China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. However, their argument that the U.S. Coast Guard should have a more visible presence in the region highlights a misunderstanding of coast guard roles, overestimates U.S. Coast Guard capacity, and risks increasing the chance of conflict with China in the South China Sea.

Barno and Bensahel highlight that China has been adept in using “commercial and coast guard-like vessels to advance its claims and intimidate its regional neighbors in the South China Sea.” This is a concerning development, and recent expansion of the Chinese Coast Guard threatens to make the situation worse. However, the authors misread the biggest challenges offered by Chinese Coast Guard activity in the South China Sea. From the standpoint of regional governments, coast guard cutters offer a softer touch. But from the perspective of civilian mariners operating in contested waters, the Chinese Coast Guard is much more threatening because its legal authorities give it the ability to board civilian vessels, confiscate goods, and detain crews—all of which are things the Chinese Coast Guard could do based on their territorial claims. The tacit acceptance of this activity by other governments will be far more influential in an ultimate legal resolution of competing South China Sea claims than simply having more ships—PLAN or coast guard—sailing through the region.

Moreover, before claims are resolved, these coast guard activities allow China to reap the benefits of sovereignty over the South China Sea regardless of the validity of their claims. The islands claimed by the countries surrounding the South China Sea have little intrinsic value. Their value hinges upon the effective assertion of sovereignty and subsequent control over surrounding waters. With approximately $5 trillion worth of international trade passing through the region annually, an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas located under the region, and nearly 10 million tons of fish caught in the South China Sea each year, the control of these waters is extremely important to regional economies. With use of boarding parties, and vessel control techniques, coast guards are able to exercise their authority within their sovereign waters without an overt and aggressive military presence.

Barno and Bensahel’s proposal also overlooks the unfortunate reality that the U.S. Coast Guard simply lacks the capacity to base a “visible” presence in the South China Sea. The Coast Guard budget is barely able to sustain the service’s current missions, and the Coast Guard simply does not have the ship capacity to carry out effective, sustained patrols in the South China Sea. In order to maintain responsible regional coverage, the Coast Guard plans for specific cutters to operate in specific locations. The placement of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the South China Sea would leave a vacuum in an area closer to home in need of presence for missions such as law enforcement, or search and rescue.

If the U.S. Coast Guard was to send a cutter, it would be one of only three operational 418’ Nation Security Cutters (NSC). This would destabilize the patrol plans set in place for the other two NSCs, affecting long term dry docking and maintenance plans while creating a lasting problem for the longevity of these assets. Problems related to the NSCs are being actively addressed. The planned construction of additional NSCs will continue, but not at a rate that would supplement the addition of the South China Sea as an area of responsibility.

It’s also not clear what exactly Barno and Bensahel envision the U.S. Coast Guard doing in the South China Sea. If the cutters they propose moving to the region would simply be conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) on top of the FONOPs already conducted by the U.S. Navy, how would the U.S. Coast Guard’s activities be any different? Barno and Bensahel argue that “as China has demonstrated, Coast Guard vessels are less provocative than warships” and “could confront similar Chinese ships with far less risk of military escalation.” While interactions between the PLAN and the U.S. Navy are tense, they exist within a set of predictable, well-defined rules that govern the way the navies of different countries handle encounters. Interactions between U.S. Coast Guard cutters and Chinese civilian vessels (whether fishing boats or the civilian maritime militia Barno and Bensahel mention), on the other hand, would be inherently volatile, as civilian ships are not as well trained and regimented as naval vessels — nor are they governed by the same established procedures or subject to as robust government oversight.

As Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, director of operations for U.S. Pacific Command, recently pointed out, it is highly unlikely that an interaction between military vessels sparks a conflict in the South China Sea. Civilian vessels, however, are another story. Montgomery said, “My worst maritime experiences have been with fishing boats. … The highest risk is associated with non-military vessels.” Compounding this risk, any action taken by the U.S. Coast Guard towards Chinese civilians would be a propaganda victory for the Chinese government, cementing their claims of American aggression.

If what Barno and Bensahel are proposing is instead that U.S. Coast Guard cutters work with the coast guards of regional allies and partners to enforce those countries’ laws, this is also problematic. To conduct law enforcement activities, such as boarding fishing boats, on behalf of regional partners, the U.S. Coast Guard would need the authority and jurisdiction to operate in said waters. This is possible through bilateral agreements with the countries in question, but it would involve a recognition of those countries’ territorial claims, something the United States government has been unwilling to do.

This is not to say the U.S. Coast Guard does not have a role to play in the South China Sea, but simply that it is not the role Barno and Bensahel seem to envision. Instead, by training and equipping the coast guards of our regional partners, the United States can help them counter control of commerce in the South China Sea by the growing Chinese Coast Guard. The United States has worked alongside Pacific partners in a number of exercises in the past, including coast guard training with the Philippines in 2015, the U.S. Navy training operation Exercise Balikatan in 2016, and the training of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force for expeditionary warfare. While in Vietnam last month, President Obama acknowledged the importance of the Vietnamese Coast Guard, stating that the United States would continue to train them in maritime law enforcement to improve capabilities in the South China Sea.

Many of these training exercises are designed as responses to specific Chinese actions. For example, during this year’s Exercise Balikatan, the United States, Australia, and the Philippines conducted “a simulated gas and oil platform recovery raid in the South China Sea”— a clear counter to China’s positioning of an oil platform in disputed waters south of the Spratly Islands in 2014.

Training is the only role the United States Coast Guard is fit to carry out in the South China Sea. By increasing the skill, proficiency, and professionalism of the maritime law enforcement forces of claimants, training serves to mitigate the specter of conflict in the South China Sea. By continuing to train and support the coast guards of regional partners, the United States will contribute to countering Chinese claims, while reassuring partners and allies of our dedication to our regional commitments, without creating additional opportunities for conflict between U.S. forces and Chinese sailors and civilians.


Aaron Picozzi is the research associate for the military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Coast Guard veteran, and currently serves in the Army National Guard. Lincoln Davidson (@dvdsndvdsn) is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.