A White Hull Approach to Taming the Dragon: Using the Coast Guard to Counter China


It has been deemed the “Era of Coast Guards” in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. Coast Guard has suggested that the service’s frequent interactions with the Chinese Coast Guard better position it to navigate the “narrow door of diplomacy” in the region than U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers. Yet despite the growing emphasis on a “white hull” coast guard versus “grey hull” naval approach in the South China Sea, many analysts continue to argue against utilizing the U.S. Coast Guard there. These critics contend that the service would have little if any positive effect on China’s coercive maritime behavior, and even go so far as to say it’s “too little too late” for a white hull answer. Even more ominously, some believe such an approach could accidentally spark war.

However, these critics sidestep a more fundamental question: What has the current strategy in the South China Sea achieved to date? Does America’s largely military approach do enough to counter China’s ability to shift the narrative in its favor?

U.S. lines of effort in the South China Sea have shifted little over the past half-decade and had little effect on reducing maritime conflict or blunting China’s ability to gain territory and advantage at sea. The most visible counter to China’s maritime strategy to date has been the U.S. Navy’s military diplomacy and freedom of navigation operations. However, this approach has played right into China’s narrative: China has capitalized on these “intentionally provocative” operations to promote the idea that it is the United States that is heightening tensions. The Chinese have exploited these patrols as justification for transforming their artificial islands into military fortresses, all the while using their own Coast Guard to political advantage. America’s focus on freedom of navigation operations rather than on China’s subversive use of its “white hulls” has led regional partners and allies to lose “confidence in U.S. deterrence and diplomatic prowess.”

Rather than continuing to fuel China’s asymmetric plans, it is time for Washington to confront Beijing’s maritime strategy symmetrically. Employing the U. S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea is a viable way to counter Beijing’s destabilizing activity and framing of the United States as a belligerent hegemon “conspiring to overthrow the Chinese people.” This shift would not only signal Washington’s resolve and commitment to stability over competition, it would also provide the opportunity to help regional coast guards develop conflict resolution mechanisms. Using the Coast Guard in this manner could be one step toward a more balanced approach that not only emphasizes respect for good order at sea, but incorporates the narrative-building that Beijing has thus far used more effectively than Washington has.

Exposing the Dragon’s Illusion

Despite an ambitious maritime strategy, some analysts assert China’s naval power still lags behind the United States. However, this power differential has been effectively offset by China’s use of so-called sharp power and the non-kinetic operational concept of Three Warfares.

An example of “war by other means,” Three Warfares has shaped the strategic environment to Beijing’s advantage by weaponizing soft power, producing uncertainty, and challenging Washington’s reliance on muscular deterrence. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that uncertainty provides an adversary room to maneuver. In the fog of war, or in this case the maritime grey zone, uncertainty can not only confound an adversary’s strategy, it can also lead to an erosion of unity within their broader community of interest.

One way Beijing has wielded its power to achieve its ends in the South China Sea has been through the China Coast Guard. Rather than enforcing sovereignty with its navy, China has placed a less intimidating face on these activities by using its “white hulls.” Coast guards are often seen as less escalatory, typically have less armament than their naval counterparts, and provide “a less militaristic face of state power.” Beijing has effectively utilized these forces to counter claims that it is militarizing the South China Sea as well as to harass its neighbors, as it did when the Coast Guard chased Filipino fishermen from the Spratly Islands in April 2017, and entered Japanese territorial seas last month near the Senkaku Islands.

In contrast, Washington has focused on using military deterrence to challenge Beijing’s actions by publicly declaring that the United States will “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” and sending naval combatants to conduct freedom of navigation operations. Disputing excessive maritime claims and island building in this manner may have strong legal merit. However, these tactics have proven counterproductive and created cracks in the U.S. alliance. As Graham Webster notes, “the debate over whether China’s government has ‘militarized’ the South China Sea takes on a strained character when the U.S. government makes its own points using its military.”

China’s maturing asymmetric strategy has emerged as a “new global battle” to “guide, buy or coerce political influence.” Beijing’s increased use of subversion, deception, and coercion, recently coined “sharp power,” exploits the democratic system’s open architecture. This has proven vexing for Washington. How does a democratic society respond to a power campaign that relies on propaganda and harassment that, if used in kind, would weaken its emphasis on promoting international laws and norms?

Some experts have argued Washington should “convince Beijing that it is willing and able to fight a war that would impose greater pain on the Chinese than they are willing to bear to achieve their goals.” Yet as T. Negeen Pegahi recently asserted, “brute force is unlikely to be useful in dealing with the wide range of challenges posed by… China.” Military deterrence is an effective tool for shaping outcomes in a hard power struggle, but limited in its ability to respond to the sharp power campaign playing out in the South China Sea. Though the U.S. Navy may command the seas and dispute excessive claims, naval capability cannot counter Beijing’s robust state media apparatus, its ability to win over key decision-makers with inducements, and aptitude in using economic pressure as persuasion to accomplish its goals.

Countering the Dragon’s Coercion

The best strategy in the South China Sea would include aspects that both contain and offset China’s destabilizing coercion. This would require Washington to accept a modicum of risk to expose and countervail Beijing’s use of sharp power. U.S. strategy will have to shift to include smart power tools, a combination of hard and soft power that “underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions to expand American influence.” One such instrument is the U.S. Coast Guard, which already has established partnerships across the region and presents a less provocative way to address maritime grey zone challenges.

With regional claimants increasingly utilizing their coast guards to enforce sovereignty and maritime security, U.S. Coast Guard engagement in multi-lateral security versus military-focused exercises would make it harder for China to frame U.S. activity as gunboat diplomacy. This approach would give the United States more strategic space to shore up alliances and force China to defend its crafted image as “a kind, gentle, slow-moving, extremely large and powerful nation which only acts peacefully to defend its sovereign interests.”

Utilizing the U.S. Coast Guard also presents an opportunity to fill the region’s maritime law enforcement gap. Leveraging a decade-long relationship with the China Coast Guard and others, the service could bring together constabulary partners at the operational level to develop a code of conduct and protocols for dispute resolution. Similar collaborations, such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, have proven key in addressing sovereignty and maritime security dilemmas. The service could also host shipriders to assist allies in enforcing their laws and regulations, such as the Philippines, which recently requested support with combatting piracy and terrorism in the Celebes and Sulu Seas, or Indonesia, which is looking to thwart fish theft, smuggling, and slavery within their fishing industry.

Critics of utilizing the U.S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea assert that white hulls may be emboldened to take assertive actions because “they think that the law (or at least their law) is on their side.” With increased encounters between regional coast guards, the argument holds, it would only be a matter of time until miscalculation led to broader conflict.

However, it is highly unlikely that U.S. Coast Guard and China Coast Guard interactions would escalate to the point of war. Beijing knows such a response would erode the very soft power its charm offensive relies upon. Even if its coercive tactics continue to bear fruit, China still needs to be able to attract and persuade others to achieve its aims of supplanting the United States as the leading influence in the region. China is not interested in complicating the One Belt, One Road initiative, spoiling the gains made with the Philippines over disputed land features, or losing the leverage it wielded over Vietnam to suspend an offshore gas-drilling project.

Achieving Strategic versus Tactical Ends

If America remains committed to achieving regional stability and maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it is time to augment current lines of effort with smart power ways and means. Military engagement is essential for power projection and maintaining America’s alliance structure in the region. Yet, this trackline alone is unlikely to lead the United States out of shoal water. Ely Ratner contends that while U.S. military power and alliances have dissuaded China from military confrontation, “they have not constrained China’s creeping sphere of influence.” U.S. policymakers should implement a coherent strategy that contests Beijing’s sharp power, provides visibility of the its maneuvers in the maritime grey zone, and restores the confidence of friends and allies across the region.

The U.S. Coast Guard has long helped partners and allies exert sovereignty over their waters. In this “Era of Coast Guards,” the demand signal is growing stronger. However, the Coast Guard is plagued with the same capacity and budget constraints the other military services are contending with, limiting its ability to assist with broader national security objectives. The service’s ability to assist with the Asia-Pacific security dilemmas was further challenged by the pivot of naval forces from the Caribbean Basin and Eastern Pacific to the South China Sea. This shift in maritime capacity required a greater commitment of Coast Guard resources to meet Western Hemisphere policy objectives. The recently released National Security Strategy increases emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region and is looking to re-energize U.S. alliances in the region. Perhaps it is time for “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” approach to both hemispheres, one that re-introduces naval capacity in the Western Hemisphere and in turn increases “white hull” presence in the South China Sea.

To lean on Sun Tzu’s teachings, a coherent U.S. strategy needs to “attack [China’s] weaknesses; emerge to their surprise.” Such a strategy should use all instruments of national power to counter Beijing’s asymmetric maritime strategy symmetrically, rather than staying the course and continuing to feed the dragon’s fire with bellicose rhetoric and inconsequential muscular deterrence. Smart power tools like the U.S. Coast Guard are not a silver bullet for resolving the region’s great power competition, especially as resulting tensions strain more than the sea lines of communication. But neither is it “too little too late.” Outside of defeat it is never too late to reassess a competitor’s strategy, adjust one’s lines of effort, and maneuver for advantage.


Shawn Lansing (@cgrsqswmr) is an active duty Coast Guard officer currently assigned to Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Coast Guard or Department of Homeland Security.

Image: Coast Guard/Jonathan R. Cilley