The head of the U.S. Coast Guard wants to send ships to the South China Sea, a heavily contested region where China is taking a hard-line stance.
“When you look at the East and South China seas, look at China’s Coast Guard, it is really the first face of China,” Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft told Voice of America.
“I have proposed to the Department of Defense that if they were to leverage the U.S. Coast Guard, I would look at providing resources to provide the face of the United States behind a Coast Guard ship, should that be a consideration for our approach to the East and South China seas with the next administration,” he added.
Admiral Charles Michel, Zukunft’s deputy, reportedly proposed sending U.S. Coast Guard ships to the South China Sea to maintain regional order at a naval conference in February.
China relies heavily on its coast guard and maritime militia in the South China Sea. Relying on civilian law enforcement allows China to counter claims that it is militarizing the South China Sea.
China’s coast guard was involved in 71 percent of the 45 incidents in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reports.
China’s maritime militia, a paramilitary force portrayed as a collection of civilian fishermen, has also been involved in multiple incidents.
“The enlargement and modernization of the China Coast Guard (CCG) forces will improve China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims,” a 2016 Department of Defense report on Chinese military power reveals, further noting, “In the next decade, a new force of civilian law enforcement ships will afford China the capability to patrol more robustly its claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”
Zukunft believes that China might respond more positively to USCG white hulls than Navy cruisers and destroyers, commenting that the coast guard can more easily maneuver the “narrow door of diplomacy.”
“The U.S. Coast Guard has a very good relationship with the Chinese Coast Guard,” he explains.
Zukunft also said that the USCG could help Vietnam, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries develop their maritime law enforcement capabilities and maintain stability at sea.
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