By Dan Southerland
China’s growing use of non-conventional means to assert control over the South China Sea is raising concerns among neighboring countries and regional military planners.
Analysts say that in “front line” flash points in the vast waterway, Beijing is deploying coast guard ships and fishing vessels instead of its regular navy vessels.
China claims sovereignty over more than 80 percent of the islands and other land features in the South China Sea and rejects conflicting claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Taiwan’s claims largely overlap with China’s.
China’s increased use of its coast guard and maritime militia to press its territorial claims may now be adding an element of unpredictability and a higher risk of clashes with other nations’ vessels.
To most people, “coast guard” summons up visions of ships that chase drug smugglers, enforce maritime law, and conduct search-and-rescue missions. But this no longer accurately describes many of the vessels in China’s growing white-hulled fleet.
Researchers with the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) say that in reaction to China’s coast guard build-up, other countries are now using their coast guards to support their own territorial claims.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense has for the first time, focused on China’s use of its maritime militias, fishing boats working often working with Chinese naval forces, in its annual report to the U.S. Congress on China’s military power.
The June 6 report asserts that China “continues to exercise low-intensity coercion to advance its claims to the East and South China Seas.”
Coast Guard deployments run risks
But even low-intensity coercion carries risks, analysts say.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Singapore Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), says that China’s coast guard vessels are “increasingly larger and possess greater range and endurance.”
Their size and range compared with coast guards operated by many Southeast Asian nations, he says, might embolden the Chinese vessels to “undertake more aggressive actions.”
China’s Coast Guard (CCG) already has a history of taking such actions.
Since 2010 Koh has been documenting clashes and standoffs involving coast guards in the South China Sea.
A CSIS report issued in September 2016 says that increasingly aggressive actions by CCG vessels, including the ramming of other ships, risk destabilizing the region.
In a report published by CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Lyle Morris of the RAND Corporation notes that until recently most coastal states have sent their navies, not coast guards, to assert sovereignty over disputed maritime areas.
“Navies offer a strong signal of state power and control, aimed at alerting rival claimants that the territory under dispute is a matter of national security and a matter that states are willing to go to war over,” says Morris.
China appears to be signaling through its use of its coast guard and militias that it wants to avoid war but that it also wants to advance and reinforce its claims.
Andrew S. Erickson and Connor M. Kennedy, experts on China’s maritime militia vessels, say that these militia boats appear to be crewed by civilians but frequently coordinate with the Chinese military.
Their civilian appearance, they say, allows Beijing to deny its involvement in the boats’ actions and to exploit U.S. Navy rules of engagement. Those rules limit the actions that U.S. ships can take against civilian vessels.
China, the Pentagon report says, “uses an opportunistically timed progression of incremental but intensifying steps to attempt to increase its future control over disputed areas and avoid escalation to military conflict.”
Last year, it says, China used its coast guard, maritime militias, and fishing boats to heavily increase its presence at “various disputed features” after a decision in July 2016 by a tribunal in The Hague that declared China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to be invalid.
Morris says that his research, published recently in The Naval War College Review, “suggests that coast guards, not navies, are the new asset of choice for many states in East and Southeast Asia to assert sovereignty over disputed waters.”
“This shift is driven in part, he says, by a perception among regional policymakers that coast guards offer a less militaristic face of state power in disputed maritime areas…” says Morris.
“On its face, having coast guards patrol large bodies of disputed territory…might be cause for optimism, as coast guards can be viewed as less escalatory and possess limited war-fighting capabilities.
“But the way coast guards are employed in the South China Sea as blunt instruments to assert state power gives more cause for concern than optimism,” says Morris.
Occupying more than 3.5 million square kilometers, or 1.35 million square miles, the South China Sea is a vital waterway larger than the Mediterranean Sea.
It is believed to harbor large oil and gas deposits, and ships passing through the area carry cargo to and from the growing economies of East and Southeast Asia.
It’s also one of the world’s five leading fishing zones, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. The broad fisheries of the South China Sea employs more than 3 million people, contributes heavily to the global fish trade, and provides a major source of vital protein to millions of people living in the nations bordering the South China Sea.
U.S. Air Force Captain Adam Greer, who has done research partly funded by the U.S. National Defense University, says that the stakes in the South China Sea can be summed up by a “3 P’s Rule”—politics, petroleum, and protein.
The U.S. takes no position on the disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea but is committed to the principle of freedom of navigation provided by international law.
China, Morris says, is clearly working to build “the largest and most formidable coast guard in the world in terms of total overall tonnage,” which he calculates will eventually reach around 190,000 tons.
Just a few weeks ago, China sent the world’s largest coast guard cutter, which has quickly acquired the nickname “the Monster Cutter,” on patrol in the South China Sea.
The giant Chinese vessel, bearing the hull number 3901, surpasses in size and speed Japan’s Shikishima-class cutter, which had previously been ranked number one.
Aid to Southeast Asian nations
In response to China’s moves, Japan and the U.S. have promised to provide patrol vessels to Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Japan has provided six patrol boats to Vietnam, and the United States has delivered to Vietnam the first six patrol boats out of a total of 18 as part of a $15 million deal signed in 2015.
But according to Koh, these are small craft that would be useful in inshore and coastal waters but barely able in bad weather to go out into the South China Sea and stay on station for very long.
Analysts agree that no combination of South East Asian nations can match China’s coast guard capabilities, fleet size, or shipbuilding capacity.
CSIS researchers say that it’s normal for a large number of Chinese fishing boats to be entering the South China Sea. But what’s unprecedented is the number of Chinese coast guard ships accompanying them.
In the past, says Koh, Chinese fishing vessels were short of China Coast Guard support.
But the CCG’s growing ability to project further and longer afield positions it, first, to scare off or deter other claimants’ fishing vessels and, second, to back up the fishing-boat militia, further emboldening that fleet to challenge other countries maritime enforcement patrols.
*Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.