For all the headlines and Chinese pique that freedom of navigation operations in the South and East China seas generate, their strategic value is actually pretty limited. But one such operation carried out two weeks ago was different. On March 24, the USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided missile destroyer, cruised through the Taiwan Strait. For the first time in the waters, sailing alongside the destroyer was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. The vessel, the USCGC Bertholf, is a 4,600-ton National Security Cutter that was sent to the Western Pacific in early March. It’s set to be replaced in the coming by months by another Legend-class cutter. This has raised an important question: Will the U.S. send its Coast Guard into the South China Sea next? The Coast Guard could help fill holes in existing U.S. strategy in the Western Pacific, but it would mark a substantial shift in U.S. tactics and appetite for risk. And as it stands, there’s little evidence that the U.S. “white hulls” will be attempting to pacify the turbulent waters anytime soon.

China’s ‘White Hulls’ and ‘Little Blue Men’

The idea of sailing the U.S. cutters into the fray in the Western Pacific has been floating around in the Pentagon for years – ever since China dramatically upped usage of its own coast guard to assert its claims over the South China Sea. China’s coast guard is the world’s largest by far – in terms of both the overall size of the fleet and the size of its vessels. By 2020, according to the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, it is expected to have nearly 1,300 vessels, including 260 offshore patrol ships displacing 500 tons of water or more (compared to around 50 similar ships for the U.S. Coast Guard). The largest of these, the 10-12 thousand ton, 541-foot Zhaotou-class patrol ship, sports a 76 mm main gun, anti-aircraft weapons, and enough space for two helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles. It’s roughly 20 percent larger than the USS Curtis Wilbur, the ship that sailed through the Taiwan Strait two weeks ago. Control over the coast guard was transferred to China’s Central Military Commission last year.

(click to enlarge)

The coast guard’s presence is bolstered by hundreds of vessels in China’s maritime militia, or its so-called “little blue men.” Most of these ships are fishing vessels that act as Beijing’s eyes and ears around potential flashpoints. Some, however, are large vessels camouflaged as fishing boats, featuring water cannons and oversized rails suitable for ramming (and probably light weaponry), and manned by dedicated teams of army veterans. All report directly to the People’s Liberation Army. The largest, most professional units are rotationally forward deployed to hot spots across the South China Sea. They are rarely seen doing any actual fishing.

Combined, the three sea forces – the PLA-Navy, the coast guard and the little blue men – typically engage in layered “cabbage tactics.” Here, the militias are deployed as foot soldiers tasked with squatting on disputed waters, or forming a cordon around Chinese holdings or assets, with the coast guard close by to intervene if things get messy. The PLA-Navy remains at a distance, available if, say, a foreign navy shows up, but otherwise keeps a low profile to avoid provoking a U.S. response and to maintain a shred of credibility to Beijing’s claims that it is merely trying to stabilize the waters. In 2012, for example, after a Philippine warship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen in the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal, 140 miles (225 kilometers) west of Luzon, two Chinese coast guard cutters and several militia vessels rushed to intervene, leading to a two-month standoff. The U.S. brokered a mutual withdrawal, but China quickly disregarded it, occupying the reef and blocking Philippine fishermen for more than four years until the Philippine president came hat in hand to Beijing. In 2014, the sea forces were used again to protect a giant oil rig China had moved into Vietnamese waters. Since January, per open source satellite imagery, several hundred Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels have been camped out in a show of intimidation around Thitu Island, the Philippines’ largest holding in the Spratlys. Last month, Hanoi claimed the Chinese militia sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat around the disputed Paracels.

China’s combined sea forces haven’t been limited to harassing weaker South China Sea claimants, with the tempo of incursions in waters controlled by Taiwan, Japan and South Korea increasing as well. Beyond just keeping waters open to actual Chinese fishing fleets, the basic goal here is to give a glimpse of China’s ever-growing heft and further the notion that the future of East Asia is Chinese – even if doing so is pushing each of these states to accelerate their own military buildups in the process. The U.S. Navy has also been a target. In 2009, for example, maritime militia joined with a contingent of Chinese coast guard and naval ships to harass two U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ships, attempting even to sever one ship’s towed sonar array and forcing it to take evasive action until a U.S. destroyer arrived to escort it to safety.

(click to enlarge)

Of course, in terms of challenging the U.S. for supremacy in Chinese littoral waters, these forces matter little. If conflict erupted with the U.S., it’s possible that they’d play an asymmetric role conducting, say, swarm attacks on U.S. warships and supply lines. But they’d be easily outgunned otherwise and could do little to solve China’s ultimate strategic dilemma: the U.S. ability to establish a blockade at a string of regional chokepoints. But China has no appetite for war anytime soon. And its use of paramilitaries has allowed it to engage in a “salami slicing” strategy, asserting de facto control over the waters bit by bit without firing a shot or, most important, provoking a clash with the looming U.S. Navy.

Indeed, by flooding the South China Sea with these paramilitaries, China has established, as the chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command put it last year, control over the South China Sea in “all scenarios short of war with the U.S.” In other words, it can effectively dictate terms to Southeast Asian states like the Philippines and Vietnam on where their fishermen can fish, where their oil companies can drill, what they can build on their own contested reefs, and so forth. If regional states want access to the natural gas or the fish or the atolls, they have to ask nicely. Naturally, this gives Beijing leverage on any number of other matters and opens opportunities to forge political agreements reducing the scope of military cooperation with the United States and its allies. And by cementing its presence around its new bases on reclaimed islands in disputed waters, it leaves the U.S. with few options short of direct confrontation to roll back China’s militarization of the disputed islands on behalf of these allies, straining their faith in U.S. security commitments.

Is There a Role for the U.S. White Hulls?

The U.S. Coast Guard is considered the most sophisticated in the world, and it too has very big vessels, including its 4,600-ton Legend-class National Security Cutters. From time to time, it deploys these on deepwater assignments far from home. The Bertholf, for example, was sent to the region after the collapse of the Hanoi summit primarily to monitor North Korean smuggling. Coast Guard cutters can also be placed under U.S. Navy command under certain conditions, as was the case with the Bertholf while it paraded down the Taiwan Strait. In 2012, the cutter even participated in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific exercises – the world’s largest annual multinational naval drills – helping track missile threats and providing gunfire support for onshore troops.

U.S. warships aren’t particularly well suited for maritime policing tasks like sanctions enforcement; they’re designed to wage war, not to board smuggling vessels or break up squabbles between foreign anglers. And in the shadow of potentially hostile countries like China and North Korea, the last thing the U.S. Navy wants is its already overstretched crews confronting Chinese fishermen – especially if they’re armed and taking orders from the PLA. Doing so could force China to respond in kind, risking a conflict the U.S. would rather avoid. And since the U.S. generally doesn’t take an official position on which parts of the disputed waters belong to which country, intervening on behalf of one claimant or another would undermine its core goal of upholding the so-called “rules-based order.”

This is why some argue for a U.S. Coast Guard role in the region. If (and this is a big if) the U.S. were keen to intervene on behalf of a regional claimant – at least in scenarios where it could do so in compliance with international law – Coast Guard cutters would be more adept than U.S. warships for doing so without dragging the PLA-Navy into the fray or bolstering Chinese claims that the U.S. Navy is the true aggressor in the region. The Coast Guard, in other words, lends itself better to U.S. messaging that it’d merely be helping other claimants enforce the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (which China ratified) with forces proportional to those of the Chinese. The Coast Guard would be in position to document and make public harassment by China’s maritime forces, puncturing the veneer of plausible deniability that the little blue men give Beijing and stiffening international pressure. This wouldn’t be enough to convince Beijing to fully scale back, but it would arguably pose a bigger deterrent to China than anything else the U.S. has tried.

Moreover, to regional states like Vietnam and the Philippines that have refrained from provoking Beijing by conducting joint patrols with the U.S. Navy or giving U.S. warships extensive base access, embracing the U.S. Coast Guard may be more feasible. Indeed, since the U.S. is keen to offload regional security responsibilities to friends and allies across the globe, and since few Southeast Asian states have much hope of building up robust naval capabilities anytime soon, focusing on coast guard training and assistance instead makes sense for the U.S. This was a core goal of the Pentagon’s 2015 Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which has languished under the Trump administration. It’s also an area where the elite Japanese coast guard has been increasingly pitching in. Beijing evidently has the same idea, with joint Chinese coast guard training with Southeast Asian states becoming more common.

But while an increase in coast guard training, and perhaps limited multinational patrols, is certainly possible, that’s likely to be the extent of any expanded presence of U.S. white hulls anytime soon. For one, the risk of a clash between a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a Chinese counterpart escalating can’t be ignored. The U.S. cutter could be quickly overwhelmed and overmatched, even by Chinese paramilitaries, requiring the U.S. Navy to step in. In that sense, their very presence in hostile waters is a potential liability. The Bertholf wouldn’t have been in the Taiwan Strait if the Navy thought there was any chance of a hostile Chinese response.

For another, the U.S. Coast Guard presently isn’t big enough to make much of a difference in the waters, anyway. As noted, it currently has just a single cutter in the Western Pacific. It’s already overstretched at home, and its budget – just $9.3 billion requested for 2020, $1 billion less than it was allotted this year – doesn’t exactly suggest that the U.S. is gearing up for a substantial overseas force. (Nor has the U.S. been ramping up security assistance to regional partners, as often pledged.) It has just eight Legend-class cutters and more than 3,000 square miles of the world’s largest exclusive economic zone to patrol.

Washington evidently just doesn’t see enough strategic rationale to devote more resources to maritime policing in the disputed waters. Regional states may chafe at the lack of U.S. interest in going to bat on their behalf, and this may help Beijing make important political inroads. But Chinese bases in the Spratlys and Chinese oil rigs across the South China Sea pose little threat to the U.S. position in the big picture. So long as the U.S. can control the chokepoints, it has the upper hand in the Western Pacific. And it thinks this reality, along with public anger about Chinese aggression in claimant states plus growing support from allies like Japan, India and Australia, will be enough to keep regional states from throwing their lot in fully with the Chinese – whether or not the U.S. white hulls are there to challenge China at its own game.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.