On March 17th at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, proposed the creation of joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea by ASEAN member nations. The remarks engendered a mixed reaction, from the predictably negative Chinese Foreign Ministry response to the equally predictable embrace by the Philippines Navy. While some responses focused on the challenges facing such a project, few paid attention to how the United States could support the endeavor.

Undoubtedly, joint patrols would need to overcome political hurdles. The most significant obstacle is the difficulty of defining a common objective among potential patrol participants. A counter-piracy mission would be the least contentious, mitigating some of the sovereignty and jurisdictional issues between South China Sea claimants. It would also allow planners to draw from recent cooperative counter-piracy experiences near the Horn of Africa and Strait of Malacca. Sovereignty issues would be harder surmount with respect to fishing enforcement missions. Such missions, however, would provide the patrols with more work on a daily basis and might therefore be billed as the more cost-effective choice.

Yet, while either mission could serve as the ostensible remit of the patrols, the real purpose of Vice Admiral Thomas’ proposal appeared to be boosting both the presence of and interoperability between the claimant navies for the sake of deterrence and cooperation. As a result, Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, correctly told Bloomberg News that “above all you need a common threat perception” to bring claimants on board.

Additional challenges abound, from the interoperability “nightmare” raised by Bitzinger, to the lack of “common communications equipment and intelligence-sharing agreements” among the states. But a history of regional joint patrols and information sharing mechanisms including the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) Network and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) suggests they can be tackled.

What role would the United States play in such an arrangement? According to Bloomberg, Vice Admiral Thomas went on at the panel to say that “if ASEAN members were to take the lead… trust me, the U.S. 7th Fleet would be ready to support.” Direct support would likely come in the form of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) assistance, primarily intelligence on vessels gathered and shared by U.S. assets such as its satellites and fleet of maritime patrol aircraft. In this effort the United States might be joined by Japan, which has stated its desire to aid the development of ASEAN nations’ MDA capabilities and recently mooted its own prospects for South China Sea patrols. In addition to MDA, the U.S. Navy could provide counter-piracy training, logistics, and organizational support. Finally, the U.S. Navy might also directly join the joint patrol efforts. One of the advantages the U.S. Navy touts for its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), fast becoming a fixture in the Western Pacific with four to be forward-stationed in Singapore, is its suitability for Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) as it can act as a peer with partner nations given its small stature.

Direct U.S. Navy participation in patrols could carry drawbacks, however. Nations might be unwilling to sign on for what could be taken as an overt provocation of China by ‘siding’ with the U.S. Navy, or simply because it brought in external military forces. The United States-proposed 2004 Regional Maritime Security Initiative, which was aimed at piracy and terrorism and would have included naval vessels, marines, and special forces, was rejected by Indonesia and Malaysia in large part due to the militarized nature of the potential American support. Further, if the mission chosen for the patrols was fisheries enforcement, the U.S. Navy would have little expertise or experience to contribute. And if required to deal directly with “cabbage strategy” incursions of fishermen and civilian maritime agencies, a navy could be a liability in the ensuing public relations battle.

A more natural to fit would be the “white hulls” of the U.S. Coast Guard, which could mitigate many of the drawbacks listed above. Yet, a look at the U.S. Coast Guard’s ability to support the project highlights the stretched resources of the agency in the region. The closest stationed forces are those assigned to Coast Guard District 14, Sector Guam: two small 110ft Island-class cutters and a buoy tender. These frankly have their hands full patrolling the waters of Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana’s Islands, The Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia that together account for 43% of the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

To compensate for the lack of regional organic assets, the U.S. Coast Guard occasionally sends vessels home-ported elsewhere through the region, as in 2012 when the USCGC Waesche National Security Cutter participated in the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise. The ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ section of the just released revision to the U.S. sea services’ A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS-21R) supports this approach, stating “the Coast Guard will rotationally deploy National Security Cutters and deployable specialized forces with the Navy and Marine Corps to safeguard U.S. territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).”

For now, however, the cutter rotations are mostly aspirational and likely to remain a low priority. The Commandant of the Coast Guard noted in January that “As the Navy repositions to the Pacific, I’m repositioning to the Western Hemisphere.” In fact, a DoD program known as the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) attempts to fill the shortfall by using transiting naval assets to aid the Coast Guard’s missions in the region. Navy ships and aircraft boost the Coast Guard’s MDA. The ships also play host to Coast Guard’s Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs), allowing them to conduct interdictions and boardings of vessels of interest.

While U.S. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft may be hard pressed to support joint patrols in the South China Sea, the LEDETs mentioned above indicate a strength of the Coast Guard that could be further utilized in region. Retired USCG Cdr. Charles Hill notes their experience expands beyond Navy-Coast Guard cooperation, as they work “joint operations with other nations, including China on a regular basis. In most cases it is LEDETs riding ships of other nations with law enforcement authority.” CS-21R also endorses the role of LEDET ship riders in the Indo-Asia-Pacific section. It states that “the Coast Guard will work with regional partners and navies using joint and combined patrols, ship-rider exchanges, and multinational exercises to build proficient maritime governance forces, enhance cooperation in maritime safety and security, and reduce illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.” Whether the mission of South China Sea joint patrols was fisheries enforcement or counter-piracy, LEDETs of the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team out of San Diego would have a strong case to represent U.S. support through training and operations.

The spirit of ASEAN cooperation and enthusiasm for joint operations may find a readier home with other projects. The Wall Street Journal reports that Malaysia’s Defense Minister earlier this month proposed the creation of a joint peacekeeping force for regional conflict spots. Meanwhile to the South China Sea’s southeast, Malaysia is working towards joint patrols of the Sulu Sea in replication of the MSP and to forestall the sort of violence seen in 2013 with the invasion of Borneo by the ‘Sultan of Sulu.’

About Scott Cheney-Peters

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, a member of the Truman National Security Project, and a CNAS Next-Generation National Security Fellow. He can be followed on Twitter at @scheneypeters.