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The China Coast Guard: Wolf in a White Hull

China’s Coast Guard is using the cover of the respected white-hull to carry out offensive actions in maritime East Asia. The world’s coast guards need to engage to counter this malign behavior.
Kevin Edes | NOVEMBER 28, 2023
The China Coast Guard: Wolf in a White Hull

Kevin Edes

Maritime Security Analyst

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The China Coast Guard (CCG)--which is proving itself to be the wolf of the West Philippine Sea--masks itself behind the thin veneer and humanitarian reputation of white-hulled ships. 

A typical coast guard risks life, ship and aircraft to save lives, protect the marine environment and homeland, and to preserve commerce. The CCG, by contrast, is using its superior size against smaller regional coast guards to push the boundaries of gray zone conflict, muscling its way around the legally hollow nine-dash line, and running protection for a massive and invasive Chinese fishing fleet and maritime militia.

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Do not judge a ship by its color. 

Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan has said that CCG actions “do not align with the universally accepted behavior of a coast guard.” This is a very accurate statement given that the CCG hasn’t publicized a search and rescue case since 2021, a drug interdiction since 2020, or a fisheries patrol since 2021. 

Instead, the CCG is on record rammingwater cannoning, blockading and lasing foreign vessels, often inside their own sovereign exclusive economic zones. These are wolf-like tactics for a white-hulled ship. 

The CCG considers its mission in the South China Sea to be defense operations, or protection of sovereign territory, a common mission for the world’s coast guards. However, according to the clearly written and fairly adjudicated text of international law, China is employing these tactics within other nation’s exclusive economic zones.

This makes them offensive sovereignty assertions, which are gray-hull (navy) style operations.

This is where it gets complicated for the world's other white-hulled coast guard vessels and all nations seeking to uphold the ‘rules-based order.’ The CCG will not back down from confrontations in the South China Sea over what China believes are rightful and historically legal maritime claims. From a Chinese perspective, the CCG is operating based on coast guard norms because:

  • China does not accept the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which it is a signatory, in the South China Sea. Nor does it accept the 2016 international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines. It views virtually the entire South China Sea as its own domestic lake.
  • The CCG wields the muscle. China is operating the largest coast guard ships in the world, displacing more tonnage than a great many naval vessels. CCG vessels vastly out-gun regional coast guards. 
  • Sovereignty is non-negotiable for the Chinese government. For its own legitimacy, the Chinese Communist Party must project power, especially in the South China Sea, to avoid another “century of humiliation.

In the fable, the wolf in sheep’s clothing leads the unwitting sheep away from the pasture, only to itself be killed by the shepherd in search of the largest sheep in the bunch for slaughter. A violent end to a violent story, it's not the outcome we should wish for in the South China Sea.

Instead, the world's white-hull organizations need to work collectively to expose the wolf. Coast guards should increase cooperation with the CCG focused on universal threats--climate change, disaster response, drug and human smuggling, responsible fisheries management, search and rescue, and piracy. 

The best version of the CCG would be concerned with these issues like everyone else. 

While on the front lines of the CCG's predatory behavior, the responsibility for pushing back cannot be ASEAN’s alone to bear. All the world’s true life-saving coast guards have a stake in preventing the militarization of the white-hulls. The frequency and scope of engagements through international forums, port-calls and official visits need to increase quickly to counter these hostile actions. 

The natural response to aggressive, wolf-like behavior is to disengage. Do not disengage. True white-hull organizations are natural collaborators. Get uncomfortable, get close to the wolf, and work together to address humanity’s universal threats.

Kevin Edes

Kevin is a Maritime Security Analyst for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He is a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard with advanced degrees from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at U.C. San Diego and the U.S. Naval War College. Opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of any of the above institutions.

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