US Coast Guard employed unconvincingly as proxy for American Naval presence in the Pacific
Published: Jan 17, 2022 02:13 PM
Former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats refitted for the Ukrainian navy are seen on board the cargo ship Ocean Grand arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine,on November 23, 2021. Photo: AFP

Former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats refitted for the Ukrainian navy are seen on board the cargo ship Ocean Grand arriving at the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine,on November 23, 2021. Photo: AFP

In a speech before the Navy League last December, the Commandant of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, bragged about the role his forces played—the fifth and smallest of the five military services, and the only one not under the control of the Department of Defense (at least during peacetime)—in projecting US presence in the Pacific Ocean. "We get access. We can go places," Schultz said, underscoring his comments by singling out the recent 102-day mission of the US Coast Guard Cutter Munro. During that time, the Munro trained with US partners in the East and South China Seas, including operations which, as Schultz described, "exercised" a memorandum of understanding between the US and island of Taiwan. This "exercise" included a transit of the Taiwan Strait. According to Schultz, China was "pretty excited when the Coast Guard is over there training with the Taiwanese," adding that the US Coast Guard mission in Taiwan was among several which "move the needle a little bit" when it comes to foreign reaction. 

The US Coast Guard conducts routine deployments into the area of responsibilities of US Naval Fleets, working alongside US partners and allies to build what its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security, calls "maritime domain awareness" by sharing "best practices" with partner nation navies and coast guards. Coast Guard participation in these programs is viewed by the US Navy as enhancing its own mission of conducting so-called "full-spectrum joint and naval operations" in concert with allied and interagency partners in a manner that advances US national interests and security and stability in regions of interest, such as Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific.

What makes the US Coast Guard particularly attractive in this role is its multi-dimensional mandate, which allows it to transition freely between the military and civilian world. While a purely US Naval presence somewhere in the world would be seen, rightly so, as an exclusively military intervention, the US Coast Guard can finesse this by claiming that its presence is related to maritime security, law enforcement, and maritime search and rescue. 

US analysts assess that China employs tactics against Taiwan island in support of its efforts in the South China Sea which likewise crosses the boundary between the military and civilian domains, using fishing vessels, commercial vessels, and its own Coast Guard to collect intelligence and assert physical presence in disputed territories or waters, either for the purposes of fishing, exploring for oil, or simply establishing a presence. Confronting China using exclusively Naval forces, these analysts believe, could lead to undesired military-on-military escalation. However, by employing what are ostensibly civilian vessels, such as those of the US Coast Guard and the coast guards of allied nations, the US, according to these analysts, believes it can push back against China without triggering a military response.

There is a difference, however, between how the US seeks to thread the needle when it comes to playing legalistic word games regarding the difference between an ostensibly civilian-oriented mission, and one that could be characterized as military in nature. Those responsible for defending the national security interests of a nation like China are, at the end of the day, not going to get tied up in the niceties of the lexicon, but rather respond to a perceived provocation with a response designed to deal with the threat as it exists, not as it is being sold. By trying to navigate in the legalistic grey zone between civil and military operations, employing the US Coast Guard as a proxy for US Naval presence, the US is only fooling itself and, by extension, its allies.

Moreover, by deliberately abusing the legitimate maritime security and safety mission of the US and other allied Coast Guards as a cover for "moving the needle" in places like China and elsewhere (the US Coast Guard conducts similarly provocative operations in the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf, targeting Russia and Iran, respectively), the US is undermining legitimate maritime security by deliberately blurring the line between civilian and military operations. While senior US commanders such as Admiral Schultz might view such gamesmanship as contributing to deterrence by expanding the scope and scale of options available to US policymakers, the opposite is true—by allowing what was once viewed as purely civilian domains to be militarized, the US is reducing, not increasing, the deterrence value of such operations, thereby increasing, not decreasing, the potential for conflict. Needles, it seems, don't move by themselves, and when they do move, it's usually for a reason.  

The author is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn