Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

U.S. Coast Guard Is Helping Southeast Asians Protect Their Seas

Regional aid needs manpower more than boats.

By , a senior fellow in the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, and , the Free and Open Indo-Pacific fellow at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies.
U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett leaves the international port of Manila to join Philippine Coast Guard ships for a search and rescue exercise.
U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett leaves the international port of Manila to join Philippine Coast Guard ships for a search and rescue exercise.
U.S. Coast Guard cutter Midgett leaves the international port of Manila to join Philippine Coast Guard ships for a search and rescue exercise on Sept. 2, 2022. Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

 Even as it increasingly expends resources to support Ukraine’s defense, the Biden administration is doubling down on its security commitments to the Indo-Pacific, from the deployment of bombers in Australia to establishing a Marine littoral regiment in Okinawa.

 Even as it increasingly expends resources to support Ukraine’s defense, the Biden administration is doubling down on its security commitments to the Indo-Pacific, from the deployment of bombers in Australia to establishing a Marine littoral regiment in Okinawa.

Yet in Southeast Asia, the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific, heavy U.S. footprints like this are rarely an option. Washington’s partners are sensitive to the security dilemmas associated with the presence of U.S. hard power and the likelihood of aggravating China.

As a result, the United States has increasingly looked to its Coast Guard as an option to assist regional states with their maritime challenges, advance security partnerships, and serve as a potent soft-power tool. As agencies focused primarily on law enforcement and safety, coast guards are perceived as an increasingly useful regional tool because they can assert national interests without being overtly militaristic and escalatory.

Much of the attention regarding this development has focused on the deployment of the Coast Guard’s cutters. This includes both increasingly frequent visits to the region by 127-meter Legend-class national security cutters and the homeporting of 47-meter fast-response cutters in Guam and possibly on other Pacific Islands. Both can fulfill important patrolling functions, albeit at different distances. These cutters will certainly serve as excellent white-hull ambassadors, a shorthand reference to coast guard vessels’ white paint schemes that reflect their national maritime security roles, while contrasting them with gray-hulled navy ships, but the analytical focus on cutter deployments belies much of what the Coast Guard can contribute to Southeast Asia. The larger impacts will not be made by the presence of vessels themselves but by less flashy mobile training teams and individual officers assigned as attachés and liaisons.

The United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy places the Coast Guard as a central component of its implementation activities. The strategy says that the nation will expand the Coast Guard’s “presence and cooperation in Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific Islands, with a focus on advising, training, deployment, and capacity-building.”  Notably, the Coast Guard is one of the few government agencies called out by name in the document. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also pointed to the role the Coast Guard would play in the region, including “unprecedented Coast Guard investments in the Indo-Pacific.”

The narratives surrounding these commitments have strongly focused on the deployment of Coast Guard cutters. One of the key announcements regarding the Coast Guard at the U.S.-ASEAN summit, for example, was that a Coast Guard vessel would be assigned to the region to operate as a “training platform,” providing multinational crewing opportunities and participating in cooperative maritime engagements. Three Coast Guard fast-response cutters have been commissioned in Guam—the Coast Guard’s closest base to Southeast Asia with a cutter maintenance facility.

Commentators also focus on the importance of expanding the expeditionary power or regional presence of the Coast Guard, with some calling for the creation of a Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific, some for a rebalance of cutters toward the Pacific, and others for the establishment of a cutter base in American Samoa—something that itself has seen a feasibility study announced.

The Coast Guard’s largest cutters, the  national security cutters, have, in fact, been increasingly deployed to the Indo-Pacific, and leaders are previewing that more will come. In 2019, the USCGC Bertholf grabbed headlines by joining the 7th Fleet’s USS Curtis Wilbur to transit the Taiwan Strait. Activities in Southeast Asia tend togather less attention but provide important contributions to maritime security governance. These include four national security cutters deployments to the region since 2019, often themselves part of larger deployments to the West, North, or South Pacific. During the patrols, they exercise at sea with partner forces, and when in port serve as mobile schoolhouses hosting training courses, tabletop exercises, and professional exchanges. The USCGC Munro’s visit to Indonesia in 2021, for example, saw various cooperative activities that were credited with “[forging] a stronger relationship, allowing … respective crews to work together and build on each others’ strengths.”

In the Pacific, shipriding agreements with about a dozen island nations allow the Coast Guard to assist with maritime surveillance and law enforcement by accommodating law enforcement personnel from partner countries. While this mandate is growing in the Pacific, no such agreements exist with Southeast Asian partners, and sensitivities over sovereignty mean they are unlikely to develop. In fact, considering that the economic activities of all of Southeast Asia’s waters are claimed as coastal state jurisdictions, there is little the Coast Guard can do to provide direct enforcement activities, and its maritime security activities are pretty much limited to capacity-building and diplomatic actions.

Coast Guard cutter activities face additional concerns—geography and hull count. The Coast Guard has a finite budget and a finite number of cutters, and it faces a difficult balance between missions and obligations in the continental United States and outside the continental United States. Other missions such as drug interdictions receive political prioritization from the U.S. public and Congress, and there is an understanding within the Coast Guard that a failure to execute homeland missions would affect stakeholder opinions and have deep political, and thus resource, consequences.

The Coast Guard only has nine Legend-class cutters. It uses these to conduct operations globally, and depot-level maintenance is done in the United States. While more are being deployed to the Indo-Pacific, simple sums dictate that their reach will remain limited. Nor will an expanded number of smaller Coast Guard vessels in Guam do much. More than 2,000 nautical miles from the South China Sea, the distance from Guam is well beyond the fast response cutters’ designed range. While the Coast Guard is exploring options to address these limitations—such as proof-of-concept extended deployments, sometime accompanying smaller vessels with a buoy tender, or developing an extended network of ports. Still, the region’s vast size, the number of partner nations, and the lack of ships create continued shortfalls.

But people can do what ships can’t. Washington officials, partner governments, and third-party commentators should tune in to what the Coast Guard already knows. With  over 40,000 active-duty personnel, it is the world’s largest coast guard. This highly proficient and technically savvy force is its real strength. The deployment of experts, supporting the development of the region’s human capital and the provision of technology-based capacities, will be the key to its success.

The enlarged number of deployable training teams arriving in the region has already gained appreciation among partners. The United States has also invested in two regional coast guard training facilities—one in Balagtas, Philippines, and one in Batam, Indonesia—already used as venues for capacity-building, both by the United States and other trainers such as the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The establishment of a regional-based technical training team, announced at the 2022 U.S.-ASEAN summit— is providing capacity-building in the areas of institutional development, readiness, sustainment of equipment, and workforce professionalism—is a promising step forward. The presence of a Coast Guard attaché at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN, as well as the diplomatic missions to the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, demonstrate the opportunities for the Coast Guard to expand its regional role. The liaison officer at the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center, for example, does important work supporting data fusion and aligning projects.

While such initiatives are not without their difficulties, reflected by concerns that they consume force capacity and that there is not sufficient specialized staff with “a knowledge of [host] nations’ languages, cultures, and agencies,” they are essential components in developing the capabilities of partner states and expanding U.S. influence. But more can be done. For example, the Coast Guard is leading the way by being one of the first forces to answer the Singapore Navy’s invitation to place maritime law enforcement officers as liaisons at its Information Fusion Centre. However, that officer is a senior captain and has other responsibilities. His effectiveness could be augmented by a full-time, but more junior, liaison officer being assigned.

The United States might also consider augmenting the financial support it provides to the UNODC’s maritime security capacity-building projects with human capital from the Coast Guard. It should almost certainly invite the coast guard forces of close partners such as Japan, India, Australia, and Singapore to send observers to the Southeast Asian Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative Commanders’ Forum it sponsors. When navy chiefs, heads of coast guards, and other senior maritime leaders gather in May for the International Maritime Security Conference in Singapore, they will have a perfect opportunity to discuss these possibilities and others.

Through a greater focus on adaptable and responsive deployable teams and ensuring the right person is in the right place at the right time, the Coast Guard can empower regional partners to undertake maritime law enforcement in their own domains and contribute to good order in regional seas.

John Bradford is a senior fellow in the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Twitter: @MarSec_Bradford

Scott Edwards is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific fellow at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Twitter: @DrScottEdwards

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.