United States Coast Guard s Increasing Role in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific
Photo: Philippine Coast Guard.

Recent activities of USCG in the Indo-Pacific

- USCG has scaled up patrols and exercises, especially with its regional partners. In early June 2023, USCG sent the cutter USCGC Stratton to participate in the first-ever joint exercise with the Philippine Coast Guard and Japan Coast Guard in the South China Sea. After completing its mission, USCGC Stratton transited the Taiwan Strait, marking the first time in Biden’s presidency that a USCG vessel has independently transited the strait without being accompanied by a naval vessel.

- USCG has made a lot of commitments to improve the capability of its partners. At the US-ASEAN Special Summit in May 2022, President Biden promised to provide $60 million for USCG-led initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region. Earlier, from 2015 to 2022, the US spent more than $120 million to improve the law-enforcing capability of partners in the area. Moreover, the US has been increasing the number of ships being transferred to regional partners. In particular, from 2017 to 2021, the US transferred two Hamilton-class cutters to Vietnam Coast Guard and is preparing to transfer a third one; also, USCG has promised to send four decommissioned patrol vessels to the Philippines. Together with other agencies in the US government, USCG also participates in the transfer and training for Southeast Asian nations of technical tools aimed at assisting law-enforcing activities, such as ship tracking system SeaVision and search & rescue planning system SAROPS. Since 2022, USCG - in collaboration with its Japanese counterpart - has been carrying out training courses for the Philippine Coast Guard.

Implications for the US and its partners

- For Biden’s administration, USCG is an increasingly popular tool to carry out its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Unlike the US military, USCG is a law-enforcing agency; therefore, in the views of several scholars, the US can deploy its Coast Guard to increase its presence and improve its deterrence capabilities in the region that includes in the South China Sea and neighboring areas, without escalating tension.  

- Regional countries can benefit from the presence of USCG. By receiving equipment and experience from participating in joint exercises with USCG, the law-enforcing, search-and-rescue capabilities and marine domain awareness (MDA) of these countries’ law enforcement agencies can be improved. According to US scholars, US Coast Guard can also assist countries in dealing with the so-called “grey zone” challenges in the region.  

- However, Chinese media says that the presence of USCG can lead to more disagreement and tension in the relationship between major powers, as well as escalate the situation in the region. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly condemns the passage of US ships, including those of USCG, through the Strait of Taiwan, and calls such moves “provocative”.

- USCG also faces potential limits if it wants to become more active in the South China Sea and the region. Firstly, USCG doesn’t have as much equipment, infrastructure, and budget as the US military. In 2023, USCG only has a budget of over $13 billion – significantly lower than the military, and in 2024, USCG intends to receive $350 million less. In addition to the already limited resources, the USCG still needs to balance its forces to carry out its duties in American waters, such as preventing the illicit movement of drugs. With this small and overstretched force, the frequency and efficiency of USCG-led activities in the Indo-Pacific may be affected. Secondly, USCG still faces many legal restrictions. Chinese scholar Yan Yan argued that the US might not have the right to carry out law-enforcement activities in a disputed area such as the South China Sea without giving up its neutrality in territorial disputes.

Trieu Khanh

Edited by HD