MANILA - Coast Guards have become increasingly active in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), becoming "proxies" for naval forces, an analyst said.
In his commentary titled "Coast Guards in the South China Sea: Proxy Fighters?" published Wednesday by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Richard Bitzinger said Coast Guards -- or the so-called "white-hulled" fleets -- have become more active in terms of enforcing maritime rights in disputed waters.
"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 South China Sea. As such, coast guards are taking on a greater importance in regional security calculations," said Bitzinger, a senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at RSIS in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
He noted that China, which claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, possesses the largest Coast Guard in the disputed area.
He said in 2013, four civil maritime forces -- namely China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the Border Patrol, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and Customs -- were combined into a single China Coast Guard (CCG), under the command of the State Oceanic Administration.
The CCG, he said, operates over 100 patrol boats, in particular the 41-meter Type-218 offshore patrol vessels, each armed with twin 14.5mm machine guns.
In 2007, the PLA Navy transferred two 1700-ton Type 053H frigates to the CCG, making them the largest ships in the coast guard, he added.
China's other paramilitary coastal defense force is the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA), which is run under the authority of the Ministry of Transportation. The MSA comprises a patrol force of 1,300 vessels and watercraft of various types, including several large patrol boats and helicopters, he said.
Bitzinger also noted that 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.
Following China's lead, most nations in Southeast Asia have also chosen to expand their coast guards.
"Several countries in the region, including Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are following China's lead and adding new and better ships to their white-hulled maritime forces," Bitzinger said in his commentary, which is part of a series on the IMDEX Asia International Maritime Defense Exposition in Singapore.
"For the most part, this is driven by the growing importance of regional waters (such as the South China Sea and the Malacca and Singapore Straits) to international security," he added.
Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
According to Bitzinger, it has become "increasingly paramount" to preserve freedom of navigation and operations in regional sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). This includes combating piracy and other sea-based criminal activities, human-trafficking, and drug smuggling.
"The concern motivating many countries adjacent to these SLOCs is that, if they are unable to adequately patrol and protect them, then countries from outside might do it for them, resulting in a loss of sovereign control. EEZ (exclusive economic zone) enforcement is, of course, another key driver," he said.
"Coast guards are generally used to enforce EEZ rights, particularly fisheries. As EEZ claims in the South China Sea have heated up in the past few years, coast guards have become increasingly important to countries boarding on it."
He, however, said that there will be constraints on the continued expansion of regional para-naval services in the disputed waters, noting that coast guards will have to compete with navies for funding.
"Consequently, most Southeast Asian coast guards will likely remain under-equipped, or forced to accept second-hand equipment discarded by their navies or other maritime services," he said.
But China, with its unified Coast Guard force, will likely be more prone to use these vessels to further its claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing's aggressive reclamation activities will also likely bolster its capacity to deploy Coast Guard vessels further out into the disputed waters, he said.
"Confrontations between coast guards have thus far been restrained, as these vessels are more lightly-armed than naval ships. Consequently, this has lowered the risk of catastrophic clashes in the South China Sea. But if clashes increase or the stakes are raised, they could escalate into more violent action involving navies."
"For example, using para-naval forces to sink commercial ships, resulting in a large loss of life, or employing coast guards to forcibly remove personnel from bases in the South China Sea or block oil and gas exploration from disputed areas and thus provoking armed resistance – all of these actions could increase the risk of conflict," said Bitzinger.