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USCG’s White Hull: Using the Coast Guard to Counter China

It has been deemed the “Era of Coast Guards” in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. Coast Guard has suggested that the service’s frequent interactions with the Chinese Coast Guard better position it to navigate the “narrow door of diplomacy” in the region than U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers. Yet despite the growing emphasis on a “white hull” coast guard versus “grey hull” naval approach in the South China Sea, many analysts continue to argue against utilizing the U.S. Coast Guard there. These critics contend that the service would have little if any positive effect on China’s coercive maritime behavior, and even go so far as to say it’s “too little too late” for a white hull answer. Even more ominously, some believe such an approach could accidentally spark war.

However, these critics sidestep a more fundamental question: What has the current strategy in the South China Sea achieved to date? Does America’s largely military approach do enough to counter China’s ability to shift the narrative in its favor?

U.S. lines of effort in the South China Sea have shifted little over the past half-decade and had little effect on reducing maritime conflict or blunting China’s ability to gain territory and advantage at sea. The most visible counter to China’s maritime strategy to date has been the U.S. Navy’s military diplomacy and freedom of navigation operations. However, this approach has played right into China’s narrative: China has capitalized on these “intentionally provocative” operations to promote the idea that it is the United States that is heightening tensions. The Chinese have exploited these patrols as justification for transforming their artificial islands into military fortresses, all the while using their own Coast Guard to political advantage. America’s focus on freedom of navigation operations rather than on China’s subversive use of its “white hulls” has led regional partners and allies to lose “confidence in U.S. deterrence and diplomatic prowess.”

Read more at War on the Rocks.

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