A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies exposed a troubling tactic used by China to harass and intimidate neighboring nations into steering clear of their unlawful claims to militarized islands in the South China Sea.
In short, China has turned their coast guard into a sort of paramilitary force, the largest of it's kind in the world. In some cases, China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels have simply been painted white and repurposed for maritime "law enforcement."
Sometimes, the .50 caliber machine guns still hang over the sides of vessels once used for war and now used to intimidate neighboring nations.
The crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell trains with the China coast guard. | US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley
But unlike military disputes, where internationally agreed-upon accords regulate standard operating procedures, these coast guard ships fall in a legal gray zone that China has come to exploit.
"What we have is a situation in East Asia where China in particular is not using naval vessels to intimidate, not using [traditional] force, but they're taking actions that are below that line of triggering any kind of military confrontation, and yet intimidating other actors," Bonnie Glasser, an expert on security in the Pacific from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider in a phone interview.
Glasser, who headed up the report on China's coast guard, compiled 45 incidents in the South China Sea and found China's coast guard involvement in two thirds of them.
But according to Glasser, "what we have been able to compile is just a fraction of the number of incidents in the South China Sea," where China's larger ships have repeatedly rammed, harassed, and used water cannons on fishing vessels from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and others.
"In my conversations in the Philippines — Chinese ramming of other ships is considered to be part of their acceptable rules of engagement. That's just what they do," said Glasser.
Nothing stopping them
Recently, China touted an agreement they reached with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), which provides a legal framework for how the navies of different nations should interact at sea.
According to Glasser, the legal framework marks a step in the right direction, but does nothing to stop the harassing actions of China's coast guard, which operates as a navy in all but name. What's more, the majority of signatories to the recent ASEAN CUES agreement had already signed a similar agreement in April 2014, rendering the agreement even more empty.
"China's ASEAN CUES agreement is not new, and was already agreed upon. [Chinese state media] portrayed it as some breakthrough... Everyone is applauding, and it's nice to have, but it doesn't address the problem," said Glasser. The real problem, of course, is that no meaningful laws regulate their paramilitary coast guard.
According to Glasser, there have been fatal incidents at sea, and not all involving China. Unlike in the Persian Gulf, where Business Insider previously reported that a hypothetically fatal incident between Iran and the US would touch off a major international incident, belligerent behavior like China's is the norm in the South China Sea.
A boarding team from the People's Liberation Army (Navy) Haikou makes way toward the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche July, 16, 2014, during a Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercise as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. | U.S Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Manda M. Emery
"China is building very large coast guard vessels," and lots of them in a "quantity as well as quality" approach, said Glasser. The sheer size of the ships, usually weighing more than 1,000 tons, as well as the way they're armed, make other nation's law enforcement craft "pale in comparison."
Essentially, the Chinese bully civilian craft with hulking boats that intimidate on sight. Only Japan even comes close to having the capability to defend itself, with 105,000 total tonnage of coast guard ships to China's 190,000. But Glasser says that actual military capability should come second to infrastructure, in the form of internationally agreed-upon law.
"Putting in place acceptable procedures of behavior and other confidence building measures is the way to go, rather than everyone having the ships the size of China's," said Glasser, nodding to the potential arms race that could result from China's unilateral military buildup.
Glasser suggests that extending CUES to coast guard ships, as well as naval ships, could be a good model going forward. US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly discussed this topic in a recent meeting.
But it's hard to imagine China agreeing to something that would limit its influence. Japan recently loaned some ships to the Philippines to monitor the Scarborough Shoal, where China continues to visit despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against their claims to the land mass.
China has completely ignored this ruling, and should they go as far as militarizing that shoal, which Obama has warned against, the US would be forced to act or risk losing all leverage in the region.
"Many different risks are posed if China goes ahead and develops the Scarborough Shoal... it would undermine US credibility, cause the Chinese to continue to test the US, and push forward a greater agenda of seeking control of the air and sea space," Glasser said.
US Senator Dan Sullivan
Furthermore, China undermining the US would cause "enormous anxiety in the region, with the US seen as weakening in it's ability and will," Glasser said.
"Reverberating effects, as well as security threats eventually posed by China having capability near main bases (the Subic Bay) would be a threat to the Philippines and the US."
So for now, China has found a loophole in international law that allows its paramilitary "second navy" of a coast guard to muscle smaller nations out of their rightful claims. China has shown a persistent will to militarize and enforce its claims in the South China Sea. Unless the US, and its allies in the Pacific, can get China to agree to a legal framework, Beijing appears ready to continue pushing its claims by force.
There is a perceived weakness in the way international law is enforced at sea, and China is exploiting it handily. As Donald Rumsfeld said, "weakness is provocative."