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And all they got that summer, was—nothing. It drove them mad, and they raved at the Government, and the army, and each other, lusting for butchery, and suddenly there was a cry on every lip, a word that ran from tongue to tongue and was in every leading article—"Sevastopol!" God knows why, but suddenly that was the place. Why were we not attacking Sevastopol, to show the Russians what was what, eh?”
—George Macdonald Fraser, Flashman at the Charge.

The Indo-Pacific region has ripened into the great maritime flashpoint of our era. An ascendant People’s Republic of China expands aggressively to meet its growing food, energy, and rare earth metal demands.[1] Despite widespread alarm outside of China surrounding its rise beyond its borders, China is reaching its apogee. In the coming decades, demographic and economic realities will curtail its regional and global freedom of action.[2] Notwithstanding, the full effects of this transition from ascension to stabilization are one to two decades away, and China in its current state is an ambitious and formidable competitor. The decades prior to China’s slowdown are a window of vulnerability in which the United States must work diligently to check China’s expansion while it retains the resources and initiative to make substantial territorial gains.[3] Navigating this dynamic challenge requires a holistic solution, with all instruments of America’s national power across the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic (DIME) spectrum playing crucial roles in defusing conflict before China begins to slow.

Beyond deterrence-based missions, the sea services must invoke soft power partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.

The U.S. sea services, particularly the U.S. Coast Guard, have a pivotal role to play in this whole-of-government approach. Beyond deterrence-based missions, the sea services must invoke soft power partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to cementing partnerships with smaller regional powers, the U.S. must “cooperate on non-competitive issues” with China as well.[4] The U.S. Coast Guard blurs diplomatic and military lanes of America’s national power projection apparatus, making it the ideal vessel for engaging China in non-competitive spheres.

USCGC Bertholf (WMSL-750) crew members observe the stars from Bertholf’s flight deck as the cutter and crew patrol the South China Sea on April 21, 2019. (US Coast Guard)

Strategic Backdrop: Why China’s Star Will Wane

China caught the attention of many in the national security arena when its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) undertook a prolific shipbuilding schedule in the early 2000s.[5] Interest quickly turned to alarm in 2012 when China began making aggressive maritime claims in the Paracel and Spratly islands.[6]

Visual of Chinese Claimed Territorial Seas (2020 DOD China Military Power Report)

These claims are significant because, under international law, a nation’s territorial seas extend 12 nautical miles from land, and its exclusive economic zone extends 200 nautical miles from shore.[7] The exclusive economic zone designates a country’s sole claim to all the natural resources within those waters.[8] When two exclusive economic zones overlap, two countries agree to delimit their claims and typically split the difference, such as between the United States and the Bahamas. By laying claim to islands deep in the South China sea, such as the Spratly Islands, China effectively extends its maritime claim to all of the natural resources within the South China Sea, preventing numerous countries with legitimate claims from accessing them. The problem is these islands are patently not Chinese territory. In 2016, China rejected The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that the Spratly Islands did not rate the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone accorded to islands under international law because they were not habitable islands, but mere sub-tidal rocks.[9,10] This rejection of international law, coupled with land-reclamation projects on sub-tidal features in the South China Sea, so-called island building, and more recent aggressive overtures towards Taiwan, indicate China shows no interest in embracing international norms.[11]

It is not unreasonable to expect that the world’s second-largest economy seeking to solidify its status as a global superpower would want to grow its maritime capability.

Invoking historical guideposts such as Thucydides’ Trap, prognostications of future conflict splash across the pages of national security and foreign policy media, as if willing the conflict into existence. This conflict can be avoided, but it requires a more nuanced approach than that of current U.S. strategy. Taking a clear-eyed and balanced view of the situation in the Indo-Pacific region, it is true that China has acted aggressively and inappropriately in the maritime domain, several times over. However, it is also true the assumptions that undergird a supposed inevitable armed conflict ignore historical context and domestic realities in China. It is not unreasonable to expect that the world’s second-largest economy seeking to solidify its status as a global superpower would want to grow its maritime capability. It is also not irrational that a nation that endured historical embarrassment to its maritime forces would work to bolster them.[12]

By 2035, probable economic contraction coupled with the fiscal burden of supporting the world’s largest navy will force tough guns vs. butter choices in China, all while its population ages.[13] China’s economy, which has underwritten its staggering power accretion and ambition, is slowing just when it cannot afford to.[14] The period until this projected slowdown has been termed the “window of vulnerability” where conflict must be avoided, before China, cognizant of this phenomena and still able to consolidate its gains through further aggression, is firmly in decline.[15]

Infographic Detailing Chinese Land Reclamation Projects (2020 DOD China Military Power Report)

The USCG & The Indo-Pacific: What is Not Working     

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf (WMSL 750), left, moves in formation with the Philippine Coast Guard vessels Batangas, center, and Kalanggaman during an exercise May 14, 2019. Bertholf is in the midst of a Western Pacific patrol under the tactical control of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In the spring of 2019, the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf deployed to the Western Pacific in support of the U.S. Navy’s 7th fleet. During the landmark patrol the cutter conducted Freedom of Navigation Exercises in the Strait of Taiwan.[16] While the Coast Guard regularly deploys major cutters to the Western Pacific to execute deep-sea fisheries enforcement operations, Bertholf’s deployment signaled a shift in the usual business model. The Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, confirmed this pivot, outlining significant plans for the region in several speeches and strategic documents.[17] The priorities center around working with partner nations in and around the Western Pacific to make the United States “the partner nation of choice.”[18]

These goals, when considered in conjunction with an understanding of the Chinese position, yield a way forward in the Indo-Pacific region where the U.S. Coast Guard may serve as a diplomatic linchpin — but not in the way the Coast Guard and most scholarship on it currently imagines. The Coast Guard’s dutiful participation in freedom of navigation operations and related Department of Defense missions, along with ambitions to be the “partner nation of choice” are both contradictory and escalatory.[19] Further, while proposals surrounding fisheries governance seem more innocuous than a U.S. warship transiting through the Taiwan strait, these proposals are actually more of an existential threat to China due to its burgeoning protein demands. Proposals through frameworks such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where the Coast Guard is incorporated in an advisory capacity, are likely to be viewed as profoundly duplicitous and controlling by the Chinese, justifying further escalatory actions by their maritime forces.[20] How can the Coast Guard hope to establish a maritime partnership with China, or at least begin to stabilize the regional balance of power, while engaging in operations that are perceived as direct threats to Chinese sovereignty and food security?

When the U.S. Coast Guard’s unique capabilities, authorities, and less threatening white hulls are considered in totality, novel solutions that mesh with the service’s strengths emerge.

Clearly, the U.S. needs to support operations that protect historic territorial boundaries and to prevent further revanchism, a role best suited to the U.S. Navy and international counterparts, but a truly holistic response cannot obligate the Coast Guard to juggle contradictory missions and messages. This is a recipe for failure.

The USCG & The Indo-Pacific: What Could Be Working            

When the U.S. Coast Guard’s unique capabilities, authorities, and less threatening white hulls are considered in totality, novel solutions that mesh with the service’s strengths emerge. Cooperation on mutually beneficial Coast Guard missions serves as an opportunity to develop confidence-building measures and knit a resilient architecture that will inoculate two superpowers from conflict. These unique approaches enjoy the benefit of being more likely to succeed than their escalatory and existentially threatening counterparts. Realms such as port security, counter-terrorism, search and rescue, and disaster relief are ideal avenues through which to nurture a partnership.

The Coast Guard’s advanced infrastructure and capabilities in spheres ranging from port security to Deployable Specialized Forces can facilitate advanced partnerships to combat this growing regional threat. No single initiative proposed will alter the regional landscape. However, many, interwoven efforts can develop the sort of cohesion that can “insulate maritime cooperation from capricious political retaliation and increase reciprocity.”[21]

Port Security and Anti-Piracy

While U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Chinese customs authorities are renewing and emphasizing cooperative measures for port and shipping infrastructure security, the Coast Guard’s International Port Security Program is primed to take a leadership role in this discussion.[22] The program, headquartered in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, retains the diplomatic and logistical infrastructure necessary for developing sustainable relationships governing port and shipping security across Southeast Asia. Chinese preeminence in terms of shipping volume partnered with USCG port-security expertise can facilitate significant gains in hardening global maritime critical infrastructure against acts of terror.[23] Recent shipping disruptions stemming from the fallout from COVID-19 only emphasize the necessity of a more integrated and effective port security architecture for reeling global supply chains.

Both the Coast Guard’s Deployable Specialized Forces community and the People’s Liberation Army Navy retain a depth of experience combating piracy.[24][25] Further, the U.S and China have cooperated on this issue before, most notably in the Gulf of Aden.[26] The U.S. can score an easy win by partnering with China to develop infrastructure to combat potential renewed piracy throughout Southeast Asia and abroad. This confidence-building measure would offer China a shining opportunity to make good on its aspirations to regional and global primacy within a stable framework while simultaneously advancing the U.S. and global interests in securing freedom of the maritime commons.

Search and Rescue and Disaster Relief            

China’s past performance in disaster response efforts highlights a significant area for improvement and another pair of opportunities uniquely suited for the U.S. Coast Guard.[27] Assuming the four regional powers, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, enjoyed unfettered access to the South China Sea, maximum search and rescue response times without coordination can reach up to 40 hours.[28] This abysmal timeline is still probably optimistic, given the geopolitical factors that would likely prevent rescue assets from promptly responding were an event to occur amid a broader territorial dispute. Were all relevant nations to adopt a unified SAR response framework, which does not currently exist, response times could be reduced to a mere five hours.[29] As the premier global maritime search and rescue authority, the Coast Guard possesses the means and reach to lead the implementation of such a construct. China could play a key role by employing its vast fleet of Coast Guard assets as regional assets..

Natural disasters offer key opportunities for nations to compete for and acquire international standing. In 2013, China suffered considerable embarrassment in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, when it was revealed it had contributed just $100,000 to relief efforts. After public outcry, China increased its efforts to $2 million and deployed a hospital ship.[30] A cohesive disaster response framework and task force, led by Coast Guard expertise and Chinese tonnage, offers another mutually beneficial structure for promoting regional stability and cooperation.

Way Forward

There are issues on which the United States and China may never agree. However, with their interminably linked supply chain relationships and complex network of shared financial interests, the United States and China cannot afford to sleepwalk towards conflict. An examination of some of the fundamental assumptions surrounding the South China Sea question has demonstrated that a constructive, multilateral approach that emphasizes constructive partnerships over coercion can guard against this conflict.

A viable path forward sees the U.S. Coast Guard being used to forge partnerships in the maritime domain, as a powerful element of a more holistic solution

To be clear, such a partnership is not a naïve panacea; it must be implemented within a whole-of -government framework, including more forceful military approaches to withstand the “window of vulnerability.” A viable path forward sees the U.S. Coast Guard being used to forge partnerships in the maritime domain, as a powerful element of a more holistic solution. By partnering with the Chinese naval apparatus in new and unfamiliar missions, the Coast Guard can be used as an effective agent of change and diplomacy to help stabilize an intractable geopolitical problem.


James Martin is an active duty U.S. Coast Guard Officer. Jasper Campbell is an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Mills, Walker D. Chinese Escalation in Maritime Disputes with Dr. Hye Ryeon. Center for International Maritime Security Sea Control Podcast 277, September 19, 2021. https://cimsec.org/sea-control-277-chinese-escalation-in-maritime-disputes-with-dr-hye-ryeon-jang/.

[2] Collins, Gabriel, and Andrew Erickson. “Hold the Line through 2035: A Strategy to Offset China's Revisionist Actions and Sustain a Rules-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific.” Baker Institute.org. Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy, November 12, 2020. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/1e07d836/ces-pub-asiapacific-111120.pdf.

[3] Collins, Gabriel, and Andrew Erickson. “Hold the Line through 2035: A Strategy to Offset China's Revisionist Actions and Sustain a Rules-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific.” Baker Institute.org. Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy, November 12, 2020. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/1e07d836/ces-pub-asiapacific-111120.pdf.

[4] Erickson, Andrew S., Lyle J. Goldstein, and Li. China. The United States, and 21ST-Century Sea Power: Defining a Maritime Security Partnership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010.

[5] Huang, Kristin. “China Steps Up Warship Building as It Looks to Extend Reach.” South China Morning Post, December 30, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3043975/china-steps-warship-building-programme-navy-looks-extend-its.

[6] “Territorial Disputes in the South China SEA | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed September 26, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/territorial-disputes-south-china-sea#:~:text=As%20early%20as%20the%201970s,natural%20resources%20and%20fishing%20areas.

[7] US Department of Commerce, NOAA. “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Home Page.” NOAA Office of General Counsel International Section . NOAA, December 6, 1998. https://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_maritime.html.

[8] US Department of Commerce, NOAA. “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Home Page.” NOAA Office of General Counsel International Section . NOAA, December 6, 1998. https://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_maritime.html.

[9] Perlez, Jane. “Tribunal Rejects Beijing's Claims in South China Sea.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 12, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html.

[10] “The Hague Tribunal’s South China Sea Ruling: Empty Provocation or Slow-Burning Influence?” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed September 27, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global-memos/hague-tribunals-south-china-sea-ruling-empty-provocation-or-slow-burning-influence.

[11] Dunlap, Charlie. “Guest Blogger: LCDR Tracy Reynolds on South China SEA Legal Issues.” Lawfire. Duke University Center for Law Ethics and National Security, April 11, 2019. https://sites.duke.edu/lawfire/2019/04/06/guest-blogger-lcdr-tracy-reynolds-on-south-china-sea-legal-issues/.

[12] Erickson, Andrew S., Lyle J. Goldstein, and Li. China, the United States, and 21ST-Century Sea Power: Defining a Maritime Security Partnership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010.

[13] Collins, Gabriel, and Andrew Erickson. “Hold the Line through 2035: A Strategy to Offset China's Revisionist Actions and Sustain a Rules-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific.” Baker Institute.org. Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy, November 12, 2020. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/1e07d836/ces-pub-asiapacific-111120.pdf.

[14] Colebrook, Michael. “The Rhymes of History: Beijing’s Nightmare Strategic Scenarios.” The Strategy Bridge. The Strategy Bridge, May 9, 2020. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2020/4/27/the-rhymes-of-history-beijings-nightmare-strategic-scenarios.

[15] Hal Brands, Michael Beckley. “China Is a Declining Power-and That's the Problem.” Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/24/china-great-power-united-states/.

[16] Mahadzir, Dzirhan, “Schultz: Coast Guard Expanding Western Pacific Operations.” USNI News. U.S. Naval Institute, July 23, 2019. https://news.usni.org/2019/07/23/schultz-coast-guard-expanding-western-pacific-operations.

[17] Grady, John, “Schultz: Coast GUARD Response To COVID-19 Highlights Modernization Needs.” USNI News. U.S. Naval Institute, April 14, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/04/13/schultz-coast-guard-response-to-covid-19-highlights-modernization-needs.

[18] Mahadzir, Dzirhan, “Schultz: Coast Guard Expanding Western Pacific Operations.” USNI News. U.S. Naval Institute, July 23, 2019. https://news.usni.org/2019/07/23/schultz-coast-guard-expanding-western-pacific-operations.

[19] Valerin, Pablo, Natalie Chounet, Jonathan Smith, and Kostyantyn Kotov. “Fonops: Not the Only Option.” USNI Proceedings. U.S. Naval Institute, May 16, 2020. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/may/fonops-not-only-option.

[20] Perry, Michael. “Cooperative Maritime Law Enforcement and Overfishing in the South China Sea.” Center for International Maritime Security. Center for International Maritime Security, April 2, 2020. https://cimsec.org/cooperative-maritime-law-enforcement-and-overfishing-in-the-south-china-sea/.

[21] Erickson, Andrew S., Lyle J. Goldstein, and Li. China, the United States, and 21ST-Century Sea Power: Defining a Maritime Security Partnership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010.

[22] House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Hearing: [1]. Washington: Federal Information & News Dispatch, LLC, 2015. https://login.usnwc.idm.oclc.org/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fother-sources%2Fhouse-transportation-infrastructure-subcommittee%2Fdocview%2F1728005189%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D322.

[23] Atlantic Area.” United States Coast Guard (USCG) Atlantic Area. U.S. Coast Guard. Accessed September 26, 2021. https://www.atlanticarea.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Area-Units/Activities-Europe/Maritime-Security/.

[24] “Combating Piracy Issue.” The Coast Guard Proceedings of the Maritime Safety and Security Council Journal of Safety & Security at Sea 69, no. 1 (2012). https://doi.org/https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Portals/9/DCO%20Documents/Proceedings%20Magazine/Archive/2012/Vol69_No1_Spr2012.pdf?ver=2017-05-31-120745-683.

[25] Erickson, Andrew. “The China Anti-Piracy Bookshelf.” The China Anti-Piracy Bookshelf: Statistics & Implications from Ten Years' Deployment... & Counting | Andrew S. Erickson. Andrew Erickson.com, January 2, 2019. http://www.andrewerickson.com/2019/01/the-china-anti-piracy-bookshelf-statistics-implications-from-ten-years-deployment-counting/.

[26] Erickson, Andrew, and Austin Strange. “Pragmatic Partners, the Unsung Story Of U.S.-CHINA Anti-Piracy Coordination.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, October 24, 2013. https://www.cfr.org/blog/erickson-and-strange-pragmatic-partners-unsung-story-us-china-anti-piracy-coordination.

[27] Erickson, Andrew S.; Hickey, Joshua; and Holst, Henry (2019) "Surging Second Sea Force: China’s Maritime Law-Enforcement Forces, Capabilities, and Future in the Gray Zone and Beyond," Naval War College Review: Vol. 72 : No. 2 , Article 4. Available at: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol72/iss2/4.

[28] Zhou, Xiao, Liang Cheng, Kaifu Min, Xiaoyi Zuo, Zhaojin Yan, Xiaoguang Ruan, Sensen Chu, and Manchun Li. “A Framework for Assessing the Capability of Maritime Search and Rescue in the South China Sea.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 47 (August 2020): 101568. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.101568.

[29] Zhou, Xiao, Liang Cheng, Kaifu Min, Xiaoyi Zuo, Zhaojin Yan, Xiaoguang Ruan, Sensen Chu, and Manchun Li. “A Framework for Assessing the Capability of Maritime Search and Rescue in the South China Sea.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 47 (August 2020): 101568. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.101568.

[30] Richard Salmons (2019) Disaster relief, international status and regional order: a case study of Typhoon Haiyan, Global Change, Peace & Security, 31:3, 283-301, DOI:10.1080/14781158.2019.1591356.

Tagged: Coast Gaurd, USCG, Strategic Competition, Pacific, Pacific Island Countries, Trans-Pacific Partnership, China, Competition, Deterrence, Naval, Sea Power, South China Sea

The Rev. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, author, and editor at large at America.



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