China's Coast Guard Might Show Up Soon Off Central America

China has a cocaine problem, and counter-smuggling operations might be part of the solution

CCG 2901, the largest coast guard cutter in the world (U.S. Coast Guard file image)

Published Sep 16, 2021 12:22 AM by CIMSEC

[By Daniel J. Kostecka]

The China Coast Guard (CCG) is growing in capability, capacity, and confidence. With an established presence throughout China’s “near seas” in East Asia and further abroad in the North Pacific on fishery patrols, the possibility of additional long-distance deployments by the CCG should be seen as a matter of when and not if.  

This is especially true in waters where Chinese interests are threatened but the cooperative look of the CCG’s white hulls presents a more appealing optic than the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) gray hulls. One potential mission could be counter-narcotic patrols off the west coast of Latin America, an area of potential interest due to the increasing problem of illegal drugs from Latin America making their way across the Pacific to Chinese consumers.

The PLAN is the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of over 360 ships, including more than 130 major surface combatants and more than 60 submarines, along with its own aviation arm. The PLAN is an increasingly modern and flexible force capable of conducting a wide range of peacetime and wartime missions at expanding distances from the Chinese mainland. From counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, to hospital ship deployments to Latin America, to submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean and long-range operations in the Central Pacific, the PLAN is an increasingly global force. It now operates in all of the U.S. Navy’s numbered fleet areas of responsibility in support of China’s expanding interests.

Matching the PLAN’s impressive modernization is the growth of the CCG. The modern CCG is the result of the 2013 consolidation of four legacy maritime law enforcement agencies. With a combination of the agencies’ older ships, repurposed PLAN ships and new construction, the CCG has rapidly grown into the largest maritime law enforcement agency in the world. The white-hulled ships of the CCG are now a common sight throughout China’s “near seas” within the first island chain, particularly in contested waters near features such as Scarborough Reef, the Senkaku Islands, and Second Thomas Shoal, as well as near foreign drilling rigs and survey operations.  

Backed up by the PLAN and the ships of China’s Maritime Militia, the CCG is Beijing’s tool of choice for intimidating rival maritime claimants throughout the region. However, with 140 ocean-going ships of 1000 tons or greater—including 60 ships of 2500 tons or greater—the CCG has more than enough capacity to expand its operations beyond regional waters. An expansion of its operating areas on the world’s oceans in the coming years should be expected, particularly as the CCG is already quietly increasing its participation in international fisheries patrols in the Northern Pacific.  

Since 1994, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has hosted its Chinese counterparts onboard U.S. ships operating in the Northern Pacific in support of efforts to stem illegal high-seas driftnet fishing, much of it by Chinese fishermen. Since joining the Japan-based North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) in 2015, the CCG has also sent its own cutters to patrol waters in the North Pacific, oftentimes in a cooperative manner through joint patrols.

USCGC Morgenthau and CCG 2102 in the Northern Pacific (Photo via U.S. Coast Guard)

In addition to building on the model established by its operations in the North Pacific, deploying the CCG further abroad in a cooperative manner has additional precedent in how Beijing has used participation in internationally sanctioned missions to expand the global footprint of the PLAN. For example, in early 2009 the PLAN deployed a task group to the Gulf of Aden to participate in international counter-piracy patrols under UNSCR 2125; similarly, the Chinese could deploy CCG ships to Latin American waters under the provisions of UNSCR 2482, which specifically calls out criminal activity, including drug trafficking, in aiding and abetting terrorist groups.

Latin America is a region of growing importance to the PRC. China’s massive Belt and Road initiative now involves over 130 countries and over $500 billion in investment and includes a growing list of nations in Latin America, with Panama the first to sign on in 2017. However, it is the enduring problem of drugs produced in Latin America that could lead to a CCG presence in the Western Hemisphere. Growing Chinese affluence and the fact that drugs often fetch higher prices in Asia and Australia than North America make China a natural market for cocaine produced in Latin America. According to some estimates, a kilogram of cocaine can fetch between two and three times as much in Hong Kong as in Los Angeles.  

While increased transportation costs factor into the higher prices found on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, it is easy to see why cocaine producers and distributors in South America view China—and the rest of East Asia for that matter—as a lucrative market. At this time, Chinese authorities are cooperating with those from other nations in combating the problem in East Asia. However, it is possible that in the future Beijing could decide it has an interest in establishing a Chinese military/law enforcement presence in the Western Hemisphere to help stanch the flow of drugs at their source.

The PLAN’s deployment to the Gulf of Aden in 2009 was generally viewed as a welcome addition to the navies already operating in the area; the CCG’s presence in the North Pacific is viewed positively as well. With U.S. and partner nation forces stretched thin to battle the never-ending flow of drugs coming from South and Central America, a deployment by the CCG of one or two cutters would likely be welcomed, at least by some of the regional governments that increasingly enjoy good relations with Beijing.

From a capacity standpoint, the CCG can easily take on this mission. It is worth noting that while approximately 75 percent of the CCG’s 140 cutters displacing over 1000 tons were added in the past decade, the USCG—with fewer than 40 cutters of equivalent size—still relies on some ships built in the 1960s.  

Further, in this specific case the CCG’s white hulls would likely be a preferred option over the PLAN’s gray hulls since counter-drug activity is seen as primarily a law enforcement mission. Even U.S. Navy ships engaged in counter-drug operations on the high-seas embark Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments due to the provisions of the Posse Comitatus Act.  

PLAN ships could also raise additional concerns in the U.S. due to longstanding American sensitivities over the presence of foreign military forces in the Western Hemisphere, which date back to the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine.

A more visibly cooperative presence by the CCG in Latin American waters could also serve an additional purpose of calming growing concerns in the region over illegal fishing by Chinese fishermen. CCG assets deployed for counter-drug patrols could even find themselves diverted to performing a mission similar to what they are currently performing in the North Pacific in cooperation with regional maritime forces.

USCG long-distance operations provide an additional template for CCG deployments in distant waters. While primarily responsible for maritime safety and security in waters close to the United States, the USCG is no stranger to global operations. The Coast Guard’s proud history includes escorting convoys across the Atlantic in both world wars, riverine patrols during the Vietnam War, and sanctions enforcement in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield.

In recent years, the USCG is once again answering the call to expand its operations beyond home waters by deploying ships and personnel to the Western Pacific. The rationale for an increased presence in the Western Pacific for the USCG is clear: supporting great power competition with the People’s Republic of China.

The CCG’s coercive operations are an increasing concern in East Asia, particularly in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Engagement and partnership building by the USCG in the region provides American strategists and planners with another tool to respond with, particularly since Coast Guard white hulls sometimes provide a better image than Navy gray hulls.

Such considerations are valid and there is no doubt the USCG will make contributions to maritime security in the Western Pacific and East Asia. However, while USCG operations in East Asia will not be why the CCG deploys to the Eastern Pacific, the possibility that Beijing would publicly call out the precedent established by the CCG’s American counterpart in establishing a CCG presence in foreign waters cannot be discounted.

While there is no guarantee the CCG will deploy to the waters of the Western Hemisphere and the Eastern Pacific to conduct counter-drug patrols off Latin America, U.S. planners and strategists who wrestle with how to deal with the growing presence of the PLAN and the CCG on the high-seas need to be open to this possibility.

China’s growing economic footprint in Latin America and concerns about the flow of drugs from Latin America to China are legitimate national interests that Beijing needs to protect. Given the law enforcement nature of counter-drug operations and the CCG’s success in participating in North Pacific fisheries patrols, the CCG is a more logical choice than the PLAN for the establishment of an initial maritime presence in the Eastern Pacific.  

Obviously, this could grow into something more robust that includes a PLAN component in the future, just as the PLAN’s presence in the Gulf of Aden has led to the establishment of China’s first overseas military facility in Djibouti. It is something of a cliché to state that the fleet follows the flag. However, there is truth in that statement, and at some point, China’s fleet is likely to follow its flag to the Western Hemisphere in a way that is more substantive than the occasional exercise or goodwill cruise.

Daniel J. Kostecka is a senior civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy. Mr. Kostecka has worked for the Navy for 16 years and has worked for the Department of Defense and the Government Accountability Of?ce. He was an active-duty Air Force of?cer for ten years and recently retired from the Air Force Reserves with the rank of lieutenant colonel and over 27 total years of commissioned service. Mr. Kostecka has a bachelor of science in mathematics from The Ohio State University, a master of liberal arts in military and diplomatic history from Harvard University, a master of arts in national security policy from the Patterson School of Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky, and a Master of Science in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

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