Call in the Coast Guard: How Maritime Law Enforcement Can Combat China’s Gray-Zone Aggression


Earlier this year, China’s Coast Guard forced a Filipino fishing boat captain and crew away from Scarborough Shoal, which the United Nations International Tribunal has established as the territory of the Philippines, demanding that they dump their catch. Indeed, China’s Coast Guard continues to use aggression and force to coerce and intimidate other nations — even in those other nations’ territorial waters. China’s Coast Guard also routinely forces collisions with Filipino fishing and supply vessels, and harasses other vessels in the South China Sea. China views these gray-zone tactics as a natural extension of national power, and its flagrant violation of international law will likely continue unless Indo-Pacific stakeholders begin to impose consequences for such actions.

Despite renewed emphasis by the Biden, Trump, and Obama administrations, America’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific has struggled under Chinese pressure — including both gray-zone operations in East Asian waters and China’s Belt and Road Initiative more broadly. Moreover, U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific has waned, as evidenced by the fact that nations such as Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, and Nauru have recently switched their diplomatic recognition from U.S.-friendly Taiwan to China.

Still, all is not lost for the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Both Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia recently signed agreements that will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce maritime law on behalf of those countries without having a representative of those countries onboard U.S. vessels. The United States should build on this momentum, developing a coordinated international approach to the region that will establish a combined force of coast guards and maritime law enforcement agencies, with a persistent focus from this force on fortifying international norms.



Ongoing Enforcement

Combined Maritime Forces are not a new concept. Today, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy routinely participate in international maritime coalitions on critical issues. The United States leads the Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces,comprising “a multinational maritime partnership, which exists to uphold the rules-based international order by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas and promoting security, stability, and prosperity.” A significant advantage of the Combined Maritime Forces concept is that the level of involvement is voluntary and scalable for each nation. Some nations may only be able to provide a single member to serve as a liaison officer, while others may be able to conduct training or provide ships and aircraft to support operations. Despite the differing levels of contribution, building these partnerships is a critical milestone in establishing the rules-based order.

There is currently no equivalent to a Combined Maritime Forces operating in the Indo-Pacific. There is, however, a long-running Combined Force Maritime Component Commander course taught annually by the Naval War College’s College of Maritime Operational Warfare at U.S. Pacific Fleet in Honolulu. While students are primarily navy admirals from across the Indo-Pacific, U.S. Coast Guard admirals participate as well. As part of its core curriculum, the College of Maritime Operational Warfare also regularly holds equivalent regional courses at the epicenter of the current active Combined Maritime Forces — U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (Bahrain) — as well as at Allied Joint Force Command Naples (Italy). This Combined Force Maritime Component Commander “network-in-being” offers a powerful concept and community upon which to build Combined Maritime Forces-type efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

There are, moreover, several ongoing law enforcement initiatives in the region, including the Ocean Maritime Security Initiative, the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative, and the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise. But all of these are conducted individually, without a common architecture or a unifying, centralized organization. These military educational offerings, independent initiatives, and unilateral efforts, while valuable, can be improved upon by being operationalized concertedly under the umbrella of a dedicated Combined Maritime Forces structure. This would connect what are currently disparate entities by aligning them to work toward comprehensive objectives, as well as incorporating more partner nations into the fold.

Combined Maritime Forces in Action

The Indo-Pacific maritime domain has become an ungoverned — and sometimes even a purposefully misgoverned — region. The development of a Combined Maritime Forces, consisting of coast guards and law enforcement authorities, would build that much-needed structure to consistently address critical issues in the Indo-Pacific. A cohesive structure — built by and through like-minded nations that govern under a rules-based approach — would allow for a more efficient exchange of information, and a more effective distribution of resources to address both current and future challenges. The Combined Maritime Forces organization based out of Bahrain has, for example, built cohesion and shown effectiveness in the Middle East, and nearly eliminated piracy off the Horn of Africa. This precedent provides the rationale that a similar structure in the Indo-Pacific would build strong partnerships to combat gray-zone tactics.

The creation of a Combined Maritime Forces in the Indo-Pacific has a high potential for a negative response from China, due to the perception of increased militarization in the region. Therefore, any Combined Maritime Forces should comprise dedicated maritime law enforcement partners, not naval defense forces. Most maritime agencies in the region operate similarly to the U.S. Coast Guard and are focused more on sovereignty and coastal protection than on global force projection. Thus, it makes sense to concentrate on maritime law enforcement and not military competition. The U.S. Coast Guard is a more palatable, non-escalatory partner here, and it brings its law enforcement capabilities — along with a mix of other authorities and expertise, including environmental protection — and can easily operate alongside foreign militaries, coast guards, and maritime police.

One of the focus areas for a Combined Maritime Forces and part of the Palau and Federated States of Micronesia agreements, is combatting illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. The top locations for illegal fishing are in the western, central, and South Pacific. Dwindling fish stocks in the Indo-Pacific are a global problem, and the actions to counter overfishing by single nations, performing alone, are simply not enough. The development of a Combined Maritime Forces will create the beginnings of a unified approach to address the illicit fishing problem and the depletion of fish stocks.

Moreover, the development of a Combined Maritime Forces will do more than just build a coalition of nations to target the problem. As highlighted in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s strategy:

[A]ddressing Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported Fishing is not just about fish: [I]t is a multi-faceted problem that covers other core policy concerns, including human rights, food security, and maritime security.

A cohesive and coordinated maritime force in the region could also serve to quickly transition to search and rescue service, environmental pollution response, or a natural disaster relief response force. Moreover, such a force creates the foundation for establishing a robust law enforcement presence to respond to violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and enforce international norms.


By not providing consistent leadership to priority issues, and by allowing China to assert hegemony, the United States is losing its strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific. The United States should follow through with existing strategies on the Indo-Pacific and go one step further by implementing a Combined Maritime Forces. This would bring together coast guards and law enforcement authorities to establish a baseline of acceptable conduct, with transgressions resulting in clear consequences.

Establishing a Combined Maritime Forces focused on law enforcement as a soft power approach would provide a cohesive structure, improved partnerships, and a clear way to push back against Chinese gray-zone tactics and overt aggression. A Combined Maritime Forces could address priority issues in the region, including maritime domain awareness, capacity building, and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. Congress has already authorizedthe expansion of efforts in this realm “as part of the mission of the Combined Maritime Forces.” Congress should build on existing language to authorize and appropriate funds for the establishment of a new Combined Maritime Forces that focuses on law enforcement as the key enabler toward a free and open Indo-Pacific.



Eric “Coop” Cooper is a senior policy researcher at RAND and a retired senior Coast Guard officer.

Image: Kevin Steinberg