ARMED with little more than flashing lights, loud hailers and water cannons, China’s coast guard is becoming the vanguard for the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the ongoing land reclamation by China in the South China Sea. — Reuters
The ostensibly civilian “white-hulled” fleet is a frequent presence in the disputed waters, confronting fishing and coast guard vessels from other claimant nations. By not deploying its gray-hulled navy too visibly, China is seeking to avert international condemnation that might result if it tried to impose its territorial assertions with warships.
That distinction is important as the US military is reportedly considering sailing warships into the 12 nautical mile zone that China claims around some man-made islands in the South China Sea. The question is whether China would meet such patrols with the coast guard alone or use it as a reason to bring in its navy, a move that would significantly raise tensions in the area.
“Initially it would be the coast guard, but I worry about escalation control,” said Susan Shirk, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. “I think we have to anticipate that the PLA navy would respond in some manner.” Ms. Shirk is now chairwoman of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California.
China has utilized its coast guard in the area in an effort to underline the political message that it considers at least 80 percent of the South China Sea to be its sovereign territory, subject to its domestic laws. The claim is based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map that doesn’t give precise coordinates. The vessels often operate in waters around the reefs on which it has been building airstrips, buildings and light houses.
“China is employing its coast guard as aggressive instruments of state policy to assert territorial claims,” said Lyle Morris, a project associate at Rand Corp. who has traveled this year to Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Japan to study their coast guards. “And they are adopting more assertive tactics.”
In June, a Chinese coast guard vessel flanked a Chinese fishing boat in waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, according to Rear Admiral A. Taufiq R., commander of the Indonesian Western Fleet. The islands lie outside the nine-dash line and Mr. Taufiq said he ordered the Chinese vessels to leave. Indonesia doesn’t dispute territory with China, though some officials have expressed concern about China’s intentions.
The US says it doesn’t take sides over the South China Sea but officials including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have repeatedly said the country will protect freedom of navigation by sailing and flying wherever international law permits. It has already flown Poseidon surveillance aircraft in the area, though not within the 12 mile zones set out by China.
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