Coast guards: proxy fighters in the South China Sea


Growing defense budgets have underwritten a sizable arms buildup in Southeast Asia since around the turn of the century. Regional navies have particularly benefited from increased military expenditures, and as a result, many Southeast Asian navies are in the process of transforming themselves from modest forces oriented mainly toward coastal defense to modern fleets capable of projecting considerable firepower into local “green waters.”

In general, Southeast Asian navies are experiencing growth in three broad areas. In the first place, many have acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, largish surface combatants. In the past, most regional navies consisted mainly of coastal patrol boats and fast-attack craft, geared mostly toward littoral combat. Today, however, many of these forces are being outfitted with larger, longer-range warships, usually of the corvette or frigate class.

Secondly, there has been a major expansion in regional submarine fleets. Many Southeast Asian navies that did not possess a single submarine 15 or 20 years ago are now operating or acquiring quite impressive fleets of undersea vessels.

Finally, many local navies are also acquiring new ships for expeditionary warfare. Singapore has indigenously designed and built four Endurance-class amphibious operations ships; it is also building one ship in this class for the Thai navy. Indonesia and Philippines are both acquiring South Korean-designed Makassar-class amphibious ships, while the Thais operate the only full-fledged aircraft carrier in Southeast Asia.

However, while considerable attention is paid to the buildup of navies in and around the South China Sea (SCS), a lesser-known but equally critical story has been the growth of regional para-naval forces – that is, coast guards and other civil maritime services. These so-called “white hulls” have been increasingly used to enforce maritime rights – particularly Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – and patrols by such forces have been both more frequent and, in some cases, more aggressive.

In the case of Southeast Asia, local coast guards are being increasingly employed as proxies for regional navies when it comes to aggressive enforcement of sovereignty rights, particularly in the SCS. As such, coast guards are taking on a greater importance in regional security calculations. Chinese coast guard vessels have rammed Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats and have also tried to block Philippine vessels attempting to re-provision the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded ship in the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.