The involvement of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy is remarkably making headlines. For the first time, the USCG cutter Bertholf joined a U.S. Navy destroyer in crossing the Taiwan Strait last March to demonstrate U.S. commitment for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Relatedly, the same USCG vessel also conducted a maritime exercise with Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal last month. Another vessel, USCGC Stratton, which is also of the same size and capability, is now deployed with the 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan.
Numerous maritime security scholars have tried to explain why U.S. white hulls are now finding their way along the seas and shores of Southeast Asia. The most considerable argument is that Washington has to distribute its operations with other branches of its military service, the U.S. coast guard included. Others have explained this in the context of effectively countering the three sea forces of China — the navy, the coast guard, and the maritime militia. Moreover, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander Vice Admiral Linda Fagan claimed that Washington intends to actively support the region through “law enforcement and capacity-building in the fisheries enforcement realm.”
In evaluating each explanation to comprehend the nature of the USCG’s deployment in the Pacific, it can be argued that these answers do not fully capture the essence why the United States is now utilizing its white hulls. The idea of the distribution of operation among its other military services like the coast guard does not seem to value the identity of the said institution, but rather oversimplify what it is needed for. It is also important to highlight that it is not just the U.S. Navy that carries the burden alone in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; numerous countries have already sent their navy ships and patrolled the said waters as well. Furthermore, to claim that the USCG will be used for maritime law enforcement is not a resounding tell-all rationale, because even before China became assertive, the region had been plagued with nontraditional security threats like piracy, armed robbery, illegal fishing, and even drug trafficking, but the USCG ships did not make a bold and significant contribution to addressing such threats.
Hence, the question that needs to be answered is why Washington is bringing the USCG into the South China Sea, despite its existing strong naval capability and the robust support of Western countries to its initiative of ensuring free and open Indo-Pacific?
Japan’s Coast Guard Model
As a backgrounder, it is worth noting that the external support for the development of coast guards in the region is not something new. Due to Japan’s pacifist constitution and imperialist past, it had been innovative in employing the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) in establishing maritime cooperation in Southeast Asia for more than five decades now. Notably, since the JCG was first projected as a maritime agency focused on safety and environmental protection, Tokyo had been successful in establishing stable maritime cooperation with littoral states along where its sea trade routes pass. Notably, most of its projects did not just support the interests of Japan, but also benefited the region more broadly. Likewise, in the context of maritime law enforcement, the JCG supported the establishment of coast guards in the region through capacity building measures, sponsoring ASEAN coast guards for training and seminars in Japan, and deploying JCG experts in Southeast Asia. Finally, in response to China’s rise and aggressive behavior, Japan employed white ships in the disputed Senkakus to illustrate that militarization in a territorial row would exacerbate the situation and not be a solution. This approach has once again set the standard for the claimant states in the South China Sea in utilizing white ships instead (except for the Philippines in 2012 during the Scarborough Shoal stand-off).
It is in this context that Japan demonstrates how a coast guard organization — low-key but relevant, effective in policing yet not aggressive, and lightly armed but not provocative — can perform a security role but remain open for cooperation. Thanks to this influence, those countries located along Tokyo’s sea trade routes understood the importance of white hulls and the crucial role they can play in establishing maritime order. Southeast Asian countries recognized that a coast guard’s functions are limited in ensuring safety, guarding trade routes against nontraditional security threats, protecting the marine environment, and maintaining the maritime order.
The U.S. Naval Strategy and ASEAN’s Response
In the case of the United States, since it does not have the same handicap as Japan, the Americans have embraced Mahan’s doctrine of the importance of having a powerful navy. The United States takes pride in having the most formidable naval fleet in the entire world. Thus, their cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, especially with allies, is always tied to naval exercises that mainly involve the United States Navy, like Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Exercise CARAT) and the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC).
Given the U.S. position as the victor of World War II and the ruling hegemon after the end of the Cold War, the majority of countries in the region have been supportive of these naval war games. However, due to the rise of China economically and militarily, most of the Southeast Asian countries had been hesitant to pursue the same level of support for these activities. In 2016, Philippine President Rodgridgo Duterte even warned the United States that the Philippine-U.S. war games that year would be the last, since it was dragging Manila into conflict with Beijing.
As expected, when Washington began conducting more frequent freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region, ASEAN members expressed misgivings. These countries are afraid that FONOPs could lead to an armed conflict with China. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in particular expressed his unease with the presence of warships in the South China Sea; he has always underlined that slight mistake at sea could lead to war. In the case of the Philippines, despite the constant presence of China’s paramilitary forces in its occupied Thitu Island and its place as Washington’s oldest ally, Manila until now has not expressed its full support to the FONOPs.
With these responses from the leaders of the claimant states in the South China Sea, it can be perceived that the concept of FONOPs is difficult for them to accept since they have interpreted it as a direct realignment with the U.S. interest. Moreover, any activities that involve military organizations are something these countries worry could offend their major trading partner and big investment spender, China. A second possible factor is that the sovereignty sensitive countries of Southeast Asia don’t necessarily trust the intentions of the Americans yet. In 2003, the U.S.-led program Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) to safeguard the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) strait was criticized by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore due to the issue of sovereignty and hesitation to allow Washington to have the freedom to patrols and police their backyard.
Adopting Japan’s Coast Guard Diplomacy Template
Learning from Japan’s coast guard diplomacy, the United States is now replicating what Tokyo has done. The USCG already started establishing maritime cooperation with Southeast Asian coast guards, even before its cutters were deployed this year. In the case of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, their coast guard officers and enlisted personnel in recent years had been participating in short training courses in U.S. Coast Guard training facilities. Moreover, the United States Coast Guard Academy accommodated cadets from the Philippines and Malaysia to join its corps in 2011 and 2015, respectively.
In the Philippines alone, since Duterte came into office, there was a tremendous upsurge of the number of coast guard personnel being sent to the United States to participate in coast guard related training. According to Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) records, the average number of PCG personnel who were funded by the United States for foreign training is roughly 60 in the past three years. This is a big jump from 2015, when only six PCG officers went to the U.S. for coast guard courses. Furthermore, another bit of staggering information is that Washington, through its U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Joint United States Military Assistance Group, was able to train more than 1,500 PCG personnel in different places in the Philippines since 2016. USCG personnel taught and trained the PCG in various courses related to their roles as sailors in different capacities, as law enforcers, and even as crisis managers. Relatedly, it is also worth noting that PCG just recently inaugurated a $3 million law enforcement training facility funded by the U.S. government.
Washington’s litmus test for its borrowed coast guard diplomacy was the maritime exercise between the PCG and USCG. By the mere fact that it was not disapproved of or criticized by the Duterte government, it can be presumed that the white hulls and coast guard functions are both recognized as a much better alternative in courting the approval and support of other Southeast Asian leaders. The willingness of Southeast Asian countries to accept this kind of cooperation has long been built by the JCG and is now being extended to USCG as well.
Nevertheless, it is imperative to highlight that despite the entrenched perception of the region regarding coast guards, such warm acceptance and trust to the USCG would not be extended if Washington did not carefully adapt Japan’s approach. The United States deserves to be commended since they did not just drastically assimilate the white hull strategy; it took them years to break the barrier of suspicion and eventually gain trust. Lastly, the most compelling reason for the cordial welcome to USCG vessels in the region is because Southeast Asian leaders have come to accept the notion established by Japan that a white hull has more leeway for positive cooperation that cannot be equated to aggression.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and is currently a Ph.D. candidate and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu.