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Yang Fang
Claimants of the South China Sea are investing significant resources in modernising their respective coast guards. These fleets, commonly called ‘white hulls’, play a strategic role in asserting sovereignty and enforcing national jurisdiction. As bellwether claimants such as China and Vietnam gradually upgrade both the capabilities and operational mandate of their ‘white hulls’, the risks of skirmishes grow higher.
Vietnam seems to be locked in a coast guard modernisation race with China, a clear reaction to China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. Whether one calls this an arms race or not, the Chinese–Vietnamese dynamic certainly meets two of Geoffrey Till’s prerequisites, namely political intention and action-reaction. Vietnam is consciously trying, if not completely effectively, to reduce the asymmetry vis-a-vis China whose China Coast Guard (CCG) fleet has grown to be some five-times larger than Vietnam’s.
Developments in Vietnam’s coast guard are highly correlated with, and react to, perceived threats from China. For instance, Vietnam restructured and transformed its marine police into the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) and placed the new entity directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Defence. It also established the Vietnam Fisheries Surveillance Force (VFSF) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. These actions took place after China consolidated four maritime law enforcement agencies under the banner of the CCG in 2013.
The encounter between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guards that followed China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig prompted Vietnam to beef up its coast guard and other law enforcement agencies. Shortly after the incident, Vietnam decided to arm its VFSF vessels with small arms for patrolling in the South China Sea.
While Vietnam has significantly increased its capabilities, matching China’s might will be a tall order. The VCG’s total tonnage reached 35,500 as of 2016, compared to China’s 190,000. If we take the VFSF into account, the gap can be smaller. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the total number of various types of patrol boats and aircrafts acquired by both the VCG and the VFSF has reached at least 100, compared to the
CCG’s 448.
In October 2014, the Vietnamese government approved an ambitious long-term plan for modernising the coast guard, including the acquisition of four 4300-ton multirole patrol vessels of the Damen DN-4000 class, four 2200-ton DN-2000-class cutters and eight 1500-ton offshore patrol vessels of the TT-1500 class. The 4300-ton vessels will be the largest operated by coast guards in Southeast Asia. Two of the four 4300-ton vessels are expected to be ready for service by 2019, bringing the overall tonnage of the VCG to 45,380.
Although China owns two mega coast guard ships, each weighing over 10,000 tons, Vietnam’s long coastline along the South China Sea and its geographic proximity to the region will give its coast guard vessels a natural operational advantage. Relying on small- to medium-sized boats supported by maritime aircraft will be sufficient to serve the purposes of regular patrols and protecting territorial sovereignty in operations short of war.
The VCG also looks set to be given more power to use weapons at sea. In April 2018, Vietnam released a draft law that if passed would provide its Coast Guard more flexible rules of engagement to warn ships deemed to be ‘operating illegally’ in Vietnam’s claimed waters.
The announcement came as China’s Coast Guard was transferred to the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, under the direct administration of China’s Central Military Commission. The capability asymmetry between the CCG and the VCG also pushed the latter to look for external assistance. The United States gave Vietnam twelve patrol vessels, while Japan provided Vietnam with six second-hand patrol boats and promised six new ones. Both countries also offered training for VCG staff.
Vietnam has employed a ‘white hull’ strategy that resembles China’s approach in the East and South China Seas. This strategy places the VCG and the VFSF at the frontline in the disputed waters, along with other actors including its navy, fishermen and maritime militia.
In August this year, the VCG was officially described by the National Assembly as a ‘core force’ in protecting national security and maritime order and safety.
China and Vietnam, the two largest claimants in the South China Sea, have been increasingly reliant on coast guards to assert sovereignty. While using coast guards rather than navies to deal with maritime disputes can help reduce the chance of direct military contact, past experience shows that coast guards have been involved in a significant number of minor skirmishes too. As noted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, ‘of the 55 major incidents identified in the South China Sea from 2010 onward, at least one CCG (or other Chinese maritime law enforcement) vessel was involved in 76 per cent of incidents’.
Bilateral relations between the CCG and the VCG have shown signs for optimism, as the two parties have conducted several joint fishery patrols and search-and-rescue exercises in the Gulf of Tonkin where the maritime boundary has been demarcated. But their behaviour in the disputed waters in the South China Sea remains to be seen.
With more CCG, VCG and VFSF vessels coming into play, the situation is becoming ever more prone to skirmishes and escalation. The coast guard forces from both countries are armed with light weapons and have expressed their willingness to use them at sea.
To mitigate these risks, the existing navy-centric Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES 2014) needs to be expanded to cover coast guards and other civilian vessels. Alternatively, a new CUES-type code or agreement providing better transparency and communication among coast guards and other vessels could be put in place. Until such steps are taken, the stability of the region can’t be guaranteed.

YANG Fang is a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University