As Washington looks to counter Beijing’s ambitions, one good idea is to unleash the U.S. Coast Guard, which could and should play a larger role in preserving order in the Pacific. The recent appearance of a 200-ship Chinese “fishing” flotilla in the South China Sea, loitering in Beijing-claimed waters and intimidating regional states, shows the urgency of addressing China’s maritime predations.
The U.S. and Taiwan took a good first step last month by signing an agreement that will allow the two countries’ coast guards to work together more closely. Beijing immediately denounced the U.S.-Taiwan memorandum of understanding. Earlier this year China enacted a law authorizing its own coast guard to fire on foreign vessels entering its “territorial waters,” which it defines far more extensively than those recognized by international law.
This is Beijing’s latest foray into the “gray zone,” the space between peace and war that has become the preferred operating environment for the world’s tyrannies. From Russia’s use of “little green men” (mercenaries and partisans) to infiltrate Crimea and eastern Ukraine and Iran’s reliance on proxy militias across the Middle East to China’s longstanding use of its fishing fleet, revisionist powers seize ambiguity to test Western resolve and rewrite the global order in their favor.
China has long viewed its coast guard, now the world’s largest, as a tool for injecting uncertainty into encounters at sea. Beijing exploits the ostensibly civilian status of such vessels to press its territorial claims while pretending not to be escalating conflicts. Many observers have noted the similarity between Chinese coast guard and naval vessels; the only difference is the color scheme. The Chinese coast guard operates throughout the South China and East China Seas and has recently been expanding its presence in the Pacific islands.
Thus the case for expanding the role of the U.S. Coast Guard. The smallest of the U.S. military services by budget, the Coast Guard is best known for missions of mercy, saving stranded mariners or rescuing natural-disaster victims. Its work also includes guarding oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, conducting drug interdiction in the Caribbean, and operating in the Arctic.