Debates over whether the United States and China can escape violent confrontation or about China’s use of “little blue men” to carry out “small-stick diplomacy” are fitting as tension in the South China Sea roils one of the world’s most significant sea lines of communication.1 Yet, often absent in these debates on the increasing frequency of skirmishes is recognition of how notably natural resource competition is influencing regional decision making.2 Economic and food security dilemmas—conflict drivers that existed well before disputes over sovereignty and lack of adherence to international laws and norms crowded the world stage—continue to destabilize relations in the South China Sea. With exploitation of dwindling marine resources on the rise, incidents at sea will increase in frequency as maritime law enforcement agencies carry out their increasingly vital constabulary duties.
Recent confidence-building measures and capacity-building efforts have focused largely on regional militaries. To fully realize these lines of effort and reduce conflict drivers, maritime governance must keep pace. Developing a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum independent of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and leveraging the U.S. Coast Guard’s unique regional maritime security partnerships to strengthen maritime law enforcement regimes and resource management is a pragmatic approach to lowering the risk of conflict in the South China Sea.
Current Lines of Effort
In 2015, the Department of Defense released its “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy,” which focuses on “safeguarding freedom of the seas, deterring conflict and coercion, and promoting adherence to international law and standards.” Recognizing the importance of the Asia-Pacific to U.S. national security, the document defines four lines of effort for preserving security in the region. Two are of particular note: building ally and partner nation capacity and leveraging military diplomacy to reduce risk and build transparency.3
U.S. Pacific Command, the geographic combatant commander responsible for the South China Sea region, has focused on enhancing regional maritime security capacity by, in part, improving maritime domain awareness, expanding operational capabilities and infrastructure, and increasing bilateral and regional maritime exercises and engagements.4 In addition, the United States has encouraged regional allies to assist in these efforts, leading to Japan’s delivery of patrol boats to both the Philippines and Vietnam.5
U.S. Pacific Command also has leveraged military diplomacy to reduce risk and build transparency. These efforts have led to the adoption of bilateral rules of behavior, including memorandums of understanding on rules for safety of air and maritime encounters and notification of major military activities. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) also was adopted, providing multilateral rules of behavior.6
CUES, an agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao, China, was the first to provide risk-reduction procedures across the South China Sea region. Signed by 21 navies, CUES provides a maritime code of conduct standardizing navigation protocols when warships meet at sea. It also delineates language-independent communication protocols for coordinating interactions at sea absent a common language.7
Shifting Focus in the South China Sea
U.S. efforts to promote security in the region have reduced the risk of miscalculation between military vessels. Nevertheless, there is still considerable hazard associated with interactions among regional maritime law enforcement agencies. Without established rules of behavior or a legal framework to manage increasingly stressed marine resources, maritime law enforcement vessels operating in areas with competing national claims are more likely to be involved in incidents at sea.
Including maritime law enforcement vessels and agencies in the CUES agreement presents an opportunity to standardize their operational procedures, as well as to increase interaction among regional agencies. The U.S. Navy found greater communication and interaction with the Soviet Navy the most valuable result of the 1972 Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas Agreement (INCSEA).8 In addition to moderating behavior, the resulting dialog “led to productive and frank discussions and both navies becoming protective of the accord.”9
There are challenges to including maritime law enforcement vessels in CUES. First, the original agreement addresses activity on the high seas and in exclusive economic zones, whereas maritime law enforcement vessels often operate in disputed territorial seas. Second, with the increased use of civilian vessels, such as local fishing boats, to protect sovereignty, the inclusion of only maritime law enforcement agencies and not militias could be insufficient.10
Territorial seas concerns could be addressed by adopting language specific to maritime law enforcement activities. More important, including maritime law enforcement agencies in CUES would provide an opening to discuss whether militia vessels are law enforcement or military in nature, with the potential to include them in the agreement.
Though establishing rules of behavior is essential, regional stability also is dependent on the development of resource management plans. Joint management of hydrocarbon and fisheries resources—like under the 1920 Svalbard Treaty—offers a way to defuse regional tensions.11 The Svalbard Treaty granted Norway sovereign rights over the Svalbard Islands in the Barents Sea, but it also granted the 14 countries that had recognized territories in the Barents Sea prior to the treaty equal rights to exploit the region’s natural resources. For nearly a century, despite differing views on the legal status of the waters outside Svalbard’s territorial seas, the framework has provided signatories equal access to the region’s resources.12
It is unlikely in the near term that South China Sea claimants would allow any single actor sovereignty over the various disputed maritime regions. However, it is possible the Svalbard Treaty could be adapted to have ASEAN or the United Nations act as the sovereign entity allowing equal access to the region’s resources. The allocation of resources and rights then could proceed through multilateral engagement.13
A Coast Guard Role
The U.S. Coast Guard is well suited to address the risk associated with maritime law enforcement agencies operating in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Aside from soft-power projection, its regional maritime partnerships and experience strengthening maritime law enforcement regimes uniquely addresses the need for greater governance. By supporting the development of a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum independent of ASEAN, conducting joint patrols and exercising bilateral shiprider agreements, and assisting regional governments in building legal capacity, the U.S. Coast Guard presents a complementary line of effort toward promoting regional security.
Establishment of a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum inclusive of all the region’s maritime claimants would provide an effective mechanism for collaborating on issues of mutual concern. Similar forums have had great success in maintaining open and transparent operational-level dialog. One of the overarching values of these forums is their apolitical focus on operational functions, including data sharing, identification of best practices, and development of expertise at the operational level.14
The North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, for example, consists of the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, China, and South Korea. This vibrant and effective multilateral forum has enhanced significantly high seas governance across the Pacific. For example, in May 2014, while participating in a multilateral fisheries enforcement operation, a Canadian surveillance aircraft based out of Hakodate, Japan, with both Canadian and Japanese fisheries enforcement officials on board, spotted the Chinese vessel Yin Yuan illegally fishing in the north Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Morgenthau interdicted the vessel and conducted a boarding along with two China Coast Guard shipriders. The vessel was seized, and seven days later custody was transferred to China Coast Guard Vessel 1201. The ship’s master was arrested and eventually prosecuted.15
Though it is unlikely South China Sea claimants will cooperate to this extent in the near future, a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum still would be an invaluable governance mechanism. The North Pacific Coast Guard Forum took several years to progress to the level of cooperation it sees today. More important, China’s commitment to the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum shows tacit recognition that Beijing considers fisheries conservation a national security focus and provides regional actors a platform for increased cooperation.
ASEAN recently formed a Coast Guard Forum; however, the bureaucratic nature of the organization negates one of the enduring values of these forums: cooperation in an apolitical environment. ASEAN’s politicization has resulted in the proposed “Code of Conduct” failing to be adopted despite a decade’s worth of revisions.16 CUES, on the other hand, was quickly and easily developed in an effort with many more stakeholders. Establishing a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum outside the auspices of ASEAN is essential for effectively addressing maritime governance in the region.
In addition to governance mechanisms, joint patrols and bilateral shiprider agreements offer another opportunity to strengthen regional maritime security regimes.17 Deploying U.S. Coast Guard national security cutters and law enforcement detachments operating on behalf of or with another nation could increase regional capacity and ensure compliance with regulations, such as those regarding illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.18 This mission is squarely in the U.S. Coast Guard’s wheelhouse, and the service has supported similar exchanges from West Africa to the South Pacific, allowing countries with nascent maritime law enforcement capacity to increase their presence and effectiveness.
Despite these benefits, U.S. Pacific Command’s past shiprider endeavors, such as the 2004 Regional Maritime Security Initiative, and current efforts like the Oceana Maritime Security program have received mixed support. Some South China Sea nations have expressed concern that these efforts militarize the region. Other regional nations are concerned China will view their collaboration with the U.S. Navy as provocation.19 Participation in these activities has furthered Beijing’s narrative that the United States is militarizing the region.20
In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard’s current efforts to meet “Western Hemisphere Strategy” objectives significantly affects its ability to dedicate patrol assets to the South China Sea.21 A lack of capacity and discretionary funding, as well as the heightened counternarcotic and migrant interdiction demands in the Caribbean Basin and eastern Pacific, have led to the Coast Guard’s increased focus on national security concerns closer to U.S. borders.
Coordinating activities through a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum and conducting operations from U.S. Coast Guard and regional maritime law enforcement vessels rather than U.S. Navy vessels can mitigate these concerns. One option to address the lack of U.S. Coast Guard capacity is for U.S. Pacific Command to provide a Navy surface combatant to conduct patrols in the eastern Pacific with an embarked law enforcement detachment as a Coast Guard national security cutter carries out joint operations and exercises with South China Sea nations. Using U.S. Coast Guard or other law enforcement teams on regional maritime law enforcement vessels would counter Beijing’s narrative, help maintain a regional perspective to operations, and improve operational-level relations, just as INCSEA did for the United States and the Soviet Union.
Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard is familiar with developing bilateral and multilateral agreements similar to the Svalbard Treaty. An agency well-versed in a wide range of maritime law enforcement issues including fisheries, piracy, and counterdrug interdictions, the Coast Guard could leverage its experience to help South China Sea agencies negotiate and implement similar agreements. The U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts as the head of the U.S. delegation at the International Maritime Organization meetings on combating piracy led to an established framework for international cooperation. The Coast Guard also led the U.S. delegation in Djibouti that finalized a multilateral agreement among nine nations formalizing a legal framework for the interdiction and prosecution of pirates.22 Using the U.S. Coast Guard’s diplomacy expertise to shape maritime governance in the South China Sea would be greatly beneficial in reducing the risk of incidents, and it also gives the responsibility for negotiations to a neutral actor already trusted in the region.
The United States should continue to build partner capacity and pursue broader confidence-building measures aimed at stabilizing the South China Sea. Increasing maritime governance in the region is essential to meeting regional objectives. The U.S. Coast Guard and its unique niche as an instrument of national power provide a pragmatic approach to reducing risk in the South China Sea.
The development of a South China Sea Coast Guard Forum outside the auspices of ASEAN promises an apolitical platform focused on developing cooperation and expertise at an operational level. U.S. Coast Guard participation in joint patrols and shiprider agreements could increase bilateral cooperation in the region and strengthen respective maritime security regimes. Finally, the U.S. Coast Guard’s experience with developing and negotiating a broad range of multilateral and bilateral agreements would contribute significantly to shaping maritime governance in the South China Sea.
In shifting focus and increasing pressure on South China Sea claimants to address maritime governance, regional maritime law enforcement agencies may be better positioned to manage conflict drivers resulting from economic and food security challenges. As part of a broader strategy, these efforts present an opportunity to counter China’s narrative that the United States is militarizing the South China Sea and bolster U.S. national security objectives of preserving security in the region.
The South China Sea’s complex economic and sovereignty dynamics have continued to heighten tension in the South China Sea. Disputes in the region have predominantly involved natural resource exploration and fishing vessels operating in waters with competing claims, and analysts say this trend will continue as population growth and a rising middle-class fuel increased resource competition. These factors, as well as how each claimant employs maritime law enforcement assets across competing jurisdictional claims, are today’s most challenging conflict drivers.1
The increase in global demand for energy resources has led many South China Sea nations to invest in oil and gas development within their exclusive economic zones. Vietnam, China, and the Philippines, for example, have to varying degrees increased oil and gas exploration and production, which has led to greater friction in waters with overlapping maritime claims. In one instance, a Philippine oil exploration ship was harassed by two Chinese patrol boats until the Philippines scrambled its air force.2 In 2014, China moved a large oil rig near the Paracel Islands into an area where its claim overlaps Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and enforced a buffer zone using coast guard and naval vessels.3
Further complicating the situation, international companies are collaborating with South China Sea nations to exploit the regions’ oil and gas reserves. In 2011, Vietnam partnered with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to explore around the Paracel Islands. When China protested, India replied that Vietnam’s territorial claims were consistent with international law and continued its activity. The dispute escalated when a Chinese fishing vessel cut a survey vessel’s seismic cables and India nearly sortied its navy to protect its interests.4 Similar situations could quickly escalate from a regional law enforcement issue to an international dispute.
Fisheries activity also is a leading conflict driver. The South China Sea fishing industry employs approximately 3.7 million people and is responsible for more than 27 percent of the world’s exports.5 The region’s reliance on fishing for food security and employment will continue to rise and stress the region’s marine ecosystem in the decades ahead, straining regional relations.6
Overfishing and depletion of seafood in coastal regions has pushed fishing fleets farther offshore and into disputed waters.7 Many of the most sought after species congregate around the nearly 200 land features in the South China Sea, which also are the focus of the current maritime territorial disputes. Conflicts in areas such as Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Reef have increased. Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Filipino fishing vessels regularly exploit these areas when China’s periodic fishing bans restrict Chinese fleets to port. Vietnamese fishermen have increasingly ventured into the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands areas, leading to clashes with Chinese patrol boats.8 In March 2016, Indonesia boarded and seized a Chinese fishing vessel illegally operating near the Natuna Islands, an area within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone and China’s Nine-Dash Line claim. Two hours later, a China Coast Guard vessel arrived and rammed the fishing boat to compel the Indonesian patrol vessel to release the boat.9 The China Coast Guard’s brazen act provides insight into not only the level of tension in the region, but also the marked shift in how regional governments are using their maritime law enforcement capacity.
Over the past few years, many South China Sea governments have increased the size and capability of their maritime law enforcement agencies. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia all have a maritime law enforcement capability, though China has the greatest capacity and ability to patrol beyond its territorial seas.10 This growing emphasis on maritime law enforcement, while typically a positive sign for regional governance, has led to coercive efforts in areas with overlapping maritime claims.
Shortly after the Natuna Islands incident, Malaysia’s maritime authority reported the China Coast Guard was escorting more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels through Malaysia’s territorial seas near Luconia Shoals. The fishing vessels bore no markings, and neither they nor the China Coast Guard returned radio calls from Malaysian patrol boats.11 These and other aggressive tactics are becoming more commonplace and present significant risk as regional maritime law enforcement capacity increases. Whereas the region’s navies have adopted rules of behavior to reduce uncertainty and enhance safety at sea during interactions, no such rules exist for the growing fleets of maritime law enforcement vessels.
1. See Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, 24 September 2015; Andrew Erickson and Connor W. Kennedy, “Beware of China’s ‘Little Blue Men’ in the South China Sea,” The National Interest, 15 September 2015; and James R. Holmes, “The Return of China’s Small-Stick Diplomacy in South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 9 January 2014.
2. Panda Ankit, “A Third 2016 Natuna Stand-Off Highlights Growing Indonesia-China Tensions,” The Diplomat, 21 June 2016.
3. U.S. Department of Defense, “The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy,” i, 19.
4. U.S. Department of Defense, “The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy,” 26.
5. Bonnie S. Glaser, “U.S. Strategy Seeks to Calm the Roiled Waters of the South China Sea,” in Perspective on the South China Sea: Diplomatic, Legal, and Security Dimensions of the Dispute, ed. Murray Hiebert et al. (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2014), 58.
6. Bonnie S. Glaser, “A Step Forward in US-China Military Ties: Two CBM Agreements,” The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 11 November 2014.
7. Western Pacific Naval Symposium, “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea” (2014), 6.
8. U.S. Department of State, “Agreement between the United States of America and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas” (U.S. Department of State, 1972).
9. David Winkler, Cold War at Sea: High-Seas Confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 135.
10. Lee YingHui, “Expanding CUES: Singapore’s Timely Proposal” (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2016), 3.
11. Dolven, Kan, and Manyin, “Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia,” 30.
12. Robin Churchill and Geir Ulfstein, The Disputed Maritime Zones around Svalbard (Norway: University of Oslo, 2012), 560.
13. Michael McDevitt, “The South China Sea: Assessing U.S. Policy and Options for the Future” (Washington, DC: Center for Naval Analyses, 2014), iii.
14. Andreas Osthagen and Vanessa Gastaldo, Coast Guard Co-operation in a Changing Arctic (Oslo, Norway: Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2014), 5.
15. National Marine Fisheries Service, “2014 Report of the Secretary of Commerce to the Congress of the United States Concerning U.S. Actions Taken on Foreign Large-Scale High Seas Driftnet Fishing” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014), 7-9.
16. Ankit Panda, “For the ASEAN-China South China Sea Code of Conduct, Ninth Time Isn’t the Charm,” The Diplomat, 1 August 2015.
17. James Hurndell, “The Value of Shiprider Agreements in the Pacific,” cogitASIA, 10 December 2014.
18. Matt Hegarty, “China’s Growing Influence in the South-West Pacific: Australian Policies that could Respond to China’s Intentions and Objectives” (Australia: Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College, 2015), 16-17.
19. Scott Cheney-Peters, “Joint Patrols and U.S. Coast Guard Capacity,” The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 1 April 2015.
20. Peter Navarro, “China’s Non-Kinetic ‘Three Warfares’ Against America,” The National Interest, 5 January 2016.
21. U.S. Coast Guard, “Western Hemisphere Strategy” (Washington, DC: September 2014).
22. Jim Dolbow, “The Coast Guard’s Role in Building Legal Capacity in Africa,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, February 2009.
1. Ben Dolven, Shirley A. Kan, and Mark E. Manyin, Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia: Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2014), 20.
2. Leszek Buszynski, “The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry,” The Washington Quarterly (Spring 2012), 142.
3. Ronald O’Rourke, Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016), 26.
4. Will Rogers, “Finding Common Ground: Energy, Security and Cooperation in the South China Sea” (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2013), 4-5.
5. Allison Witter, Louise Teh, Xueying Yin, William W. L. Cheung, and U. Rashid Sumaila, Taking Stock and Projecting the Future of South China Sea Fisheries (Vancouver, BC, Canada: Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, 2015), 23.
6. National Intelligence Council, “The Fisheries-Food Security Nexus in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea: Impacts on Selected States and US Security Interests Out to 2020 and 2040” (Washington, DC: Director of National Intelligence, 2012), 17.
7. Dolven, Kan, and Manyin, “Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia,” 22.
8. National Intelligence Council, “The Fisheries-Food Security Nexus,” 26.
9. Joe Cochrane, “China’s Coast Guard Rams Fishing Boat to Free It from Indonesian Authorities,” New York Times, 21 March 2016.
10. Ryan D. Martinson, “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard” (Arlington, VA: CNA Conference, 2015), 20.
11. Kyodo, “China Coast Guard Vessels Escort Fishing Boat Flotilla into Malaysian Waters,” The Japan Times, 30 March 2016.