With its regional partnerships and experience strengthening maritime law enforcement regimes, the U.S. Coast Guard is uniquely suited to address the need for greater governance in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The Coast Guard Can Reduce Risk in The South China Sea
With its regional partnerships and experience strengthening maritime law enforcement regimes, the U.S. Coast Guard is uniquely suited to address the need for greater governance in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Conflict DriversThe 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.1The 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.3Further 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.6Overfishing 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. 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.
By Commander Shawn Lansing, U.S. Coast Guard