Sailors on a Mark VI patrol boat break away from the US Coast Guard cutter USCGC Oliver Henry during an integrated towing exercise in the Philippine Sea on 16 December, 2020. (Photo: Cole C. PIELOP via US Indo-Pacific Command/ Flickr)

Sailors on a Mark VI patrol boat break away from the US Coast Guard cutter USCGC Oliver Henry during an integrated towing exercise in the Philippine Sea on 16 December, 2020. (Photo: Cole C. PIELOP, US Indo-Pacific Command/ Flickr)

The US Coast Guard and the Indo-Pacific: Straddling the Sweet Spot between Diplomacy and Lethality

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The United States has added the US Coast Guard to its South China Sea toolbox. This bodes well for regional security and the maritime rules-based order.

In its last few months in office, the Trump administration announced plans for the United States Coast Guard (USCG) to play a more active role in the Western Pacific, including Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

If the Biden administration follows through with these plans – and it almost certainly will – it will be a useful addition to America’s South China Sea toolbox.

The USCG is no stranger to Southeast Asia. During the 1990s it was a regular participant in US Navy-led exercises with Southeast Asian navies. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, however, the Coast Guard shifted its focus to countering terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Short of ships, its regional engagements became few and far between.

But the return of great power competition has again forced the USCG to reorder its priorities. In 2018, the Coast Guard issued a strategic plan which signalled a pivot to the Indo-Pacific. Thereafter, USCG cutters began to be deployed to the region on a more regular basis.

In 2019, the coast guard sent two of its largest cutters to the Indo-Pacific for 10 months. Both vessels came under the operational command of the Hawaii-based US Indo-Pacific Command. 

The two cutters enforced United Nations sanctions against North Korea, undertook training exercises with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. One cutter also conducted the USCG’s first ever joint freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) with the US Navy through the Taiwan Strait.

In August 2020, the USCGC Munro joined the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific exercise off Hawaii. The exercise traditionally hosts a number of like-navies, and is a biennial event.

The following month, the Coast Guard published a report on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing which identified the problem as a bigger maritime security threat than piracy, one that “erodes both regional and national security, undermines (the) maritime rules-based order, jeopardizes food access and availability, and destroys legitimate economies”. The report singled out China as the main perpetrator of global IUU fishing because it has the largest distant water fishing fleet in the world, estimated at nearly 17,000 vessels. 

This was followed in October by an announcement from then US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien that the USCG would “strategically homeport” several of its Fast Response Cutters to the Western Pacific, starting in American Samoa, but possibly expanding to other countries later.

In November, then US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Feith said the US would increase the number of ship rider agreements it has with countries in the Indo-Pacific so as to counter China’s “aggressive behavior” at sea. Ship rider agreements allow coastal states to authorise the USCG to board another ship when a law enforcement officer from that country is on board. The US has ship rider agreements with 16 countries in the South Pacific and Africa.

It makes sense for the USCG to play a more active role in the region for two reasons.

First, it can help relieve some of the burden on the overstretched US 7th Fleet which has had to contend with China’s increasingly numerous and assertive maritime forces – the PLA Navy, China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia – in the Western Pacific.

The USCG is ideally suited to a range of missions in the region, including sanctions enforcement, training exercises with its maritime law enforcement counterparts, and tackling non-traditional security threats such as piracy, illegal trafficking, and IUU fishing. This allows the US Navy to focus on non-constabulary activities such as aircraft carrier operations, FONOPs and monitoring the activities of China’s maritime forces. It is also an admission that the Navy’s troubled multi-role littoral combat ships have been a failure.

The USCG is ideally suited to a range of missions in the region, including sanctions enforcement, training exercises with its maritime law enforcement counterparts, and tackling non-traditional security threats such as piracy, illegal trafficking, and IUU fishing.

Second, the USCG is a military service that has equal status with the Army, Air Force, Navy and the US Marines (even though it falls under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Pentagon and has a tiny budget in comparison). Generally, its law enforcement role and lightly-armed ships are generally viewed as less provocative than heavily-armed warships. In the words of Admiral Karl Shultz, the USCG Commandant, the Coast Guard occupies the “sweet spot” between lethality and diplomacy.

How will Southeast Asian countries respond? Most will welcome increased capacity-building support from the USCG such as training exercises and the transfer of refurbished cutters. However, wary of incurring China’s wrath – not to mention tense encounters with the CCG – few, if any, are likely to sign up for the ship rider programme.

And China itself? Unsurprisingly China has criticised the expanded role for the USCG as America’s “long-arm jurisdiction” that undermines the sovereignty of regional states, “disrupts” the maritime security order. Beijing views the USCG’s bigger role as “interference” in the South China Sea dispute.

Apparently oblivious to the irony, China has just passed legislation allowing the CCG to open fire on other ships, board and inspect vessels within its unlawful nine-dash line claim, and demolish structures on atolls occupied by other countries in the South China Sea. Contrary to the received wisdom, not all coast guard activities are unprovocative.

2021/26