Coast Guards Could Accidentally Spark War in the South China Sea

A craft assigned to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JDS Kirisame carries sailors for training​. Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

White hulls aren’t a quick fix to maritime tensions.

Chinese activities in the China Seas over the past few years have caused growing consternation among other East and Southeast Asian countries, as well as countries concerned about peace and stability, such as the United States. Recent developments in the region (as recently as last week) have generated calls from U.S. foreign policy circles for a more robust response to Chinese land construction, broad jurisdictional claims, and aggressive actions against other claimants’ state and civilian vessels. Recent pieces, including those by David Barno and Nora Bensahel and by Aaron Picozzi and Lincoln Davidson, have joined the chorus calling on the United States to do more with more partners, to protect freedom of navigation, uphold the widely accepted interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and preserve peace and stability more generally—notably through an increased U.S. Coast Guard presence.

Most Chinese actions taken have been through maritime constabulary forces—governmental maritime armed forces charged with law enforcement and other missions, aside from warfare. Such forces can be called coast guards, fishery protection squadrons, maritime police and myriad other names. In China’s case, these forces include the Coast Guard (itself a recent consolidation of multiple maritime constabulary forces) and the Maritime Safety Administration. In response to China Coast Guard presence and action in the South China Sea, analysts such as the ones noted above suggest that increasing the United States’ and regional partners’ maritime constabulary presence will counter the Chinese deployments in a manner less provocative than naval flotillas would.

Such recommendations deserve reconsideration for several reasons. First, it is not clear that maritime constabulary forces—even if they are less provocative than naval forces—would lower the risk of conflict. In fact, the very issue of civilian involvement, noted ably by Picozzi and Davidson, is a complicating factor that can exacerbate the risk of conflict. Second, calls for increased U.S. Coast Guard presence fail to consider what lurks over the horizon: the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which serves an enabler of and a shield for aggressive Chinese coast-guard actions in the South China Sea.

History offers us few historical guides for what the international community is witnessing in the South China Sea today. Naval-constabulary conflicts are rather rare, and the most famous example—the Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars of the 1950s–1970s—is not a useful guide because there are too many important dissimilarities: the reversed power balance between sides, the object at stake and circumstances of the conflict, and the fact that one side (Iceland) had no recourse to a navy as a backup. Yet it seems logical to think that constabulary forces would be less provocative than naval forces and, by extension, would lower the risk of conflict. Maritime constabulary forces carry the imprimatur of law enforcement, not of war. Their vessels tend to be smaller and equipped with lighter, relatively less destructive weapons; their personnel usually have not received the level of martial training that we would expect of, say, a submariner. And by choosing to deploy a constabulary force rather than a navy, a country can signal to others that its intention is to prevent a dispute from escalating to something more serious.

However, as the analyst Christian Le Mière has most notably pointed out, this very perception of constabulary forces as a more diplomatic and less combative tool risks lulling everyone into a false sense of calm. In fact, ironic risks abound. First, the perception by a constabulary force that it is simply upholding its domestic law (and not playing power politics) reinforces the perceived justness and authority of any actions it may undertake against adversaries. Constabulary forces may be more willing to take aggressive and dangerous actions because they think that the law (or at least their law) is on their side.

Compounding this problem, constabulary forces may also underestimate the kinetic effects of their relatively weaker weapons and smaller boats, leading to a greater risk of miscalculation—both of the effects of any actions they take and the perception it will plant in the target. Constabulary forces’ political masters may decide that, because they sent a less provocative signal in the form of a coast guard, they can afford to send more vessels engaging in more clashes in a more aggressive fashion, under the mistaken belief that coast guards cannot start a conflict like navies can—another manifestation of the stability-instability paradox. And should dueling countries somehow manage to avoid this fate once, repeated encounters in the South China Sea between rival constabulary forces only increase the opportunity for something serious to break out due to misestimation and misperception.