Coast Guards Could Accidentally Spark War in the South China Sea

THE NATIONAL INTEREST — 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.


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