As China expands the formidableness of its forces and the frequency of its naval exercises, it is increasingly apparent that Taiwan’s sovereignty may be in jeopardy. A Chinese incursion or major attack might come in the form of an embargo, blockade, airborne assault, cyber war, or amphibious attack — or, more likely, in concert. Taiwan faces the daunting challenge of defending itself from each.
While the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) would carry the largest role in response, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) — the military’s fifth-largest service, located within the Department of Homeland Security — can contribute invaluably to deterrence or defense. Often under-appreciated and underfunded, the USCG stands poised to be one of the most effective instruments for safeguarding Taiwanese security. It can bolster deterrence and provide overt support while avoiding precipitous escalatory pressure from China that could arise from an open DOD presence.
Additionally, the Coast Guard’s multidimensional mandate, in both the civilian and military space, enables the service to compete in an increasingly complex global security environment, one at the nexus of kinetic and non-kinetic warfare, where the physical and digital worlds continue to converge. Beijing’s preferred tactics are intimidating commercial and government vessels, extracting resources in other countries’ waters, conducting cyber-espionage operations, and expanding its territorial claims — all with the calculated intent of undermining global norms without triggering a significant international response.
These are tactics that the Coast Guard is well-positioned to address. It could assist Taipei in the following ways:
First, it could train Taiwanese forces in maritime surveillance and interdiction missions. These measures are particularly important, since the precursor to an invasion likely would be the deployment of Chinese fishing vessels in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for an invasion fleet, as well as for deception tactics to disguise the timing, scale and location of an invasion fleet.
Second, the Coast Guard’s statutory missions in the defense, commerce and law enforcement spaces enable the U.S. to deploy multi-purposed, highly visible security assets that protect U.S. vessels, both military and commercial; support allied security capacity-building; and check China’s naval ambitions, which include the theft of fisheries and artificial island development to expand its regional territorial claims.
Third, as important as these measures are, such cooperation should be expanded based upon the unique skills and abilities of the USCG. By working bilaterally or with regional allies beyond present missions in Southeast Asia, the Coast Guard and Taiwan could significantly expand exercises centering on maritime navigation, search and rescue, counter-narcotics, and counter-smuggling.
The Coast Guard’s regional role has steadily expanded. In 2019, for the first time, a cutter sailed through the Taiwan Strait accompanied by a Navy destroyer. That same year, the USCG deployed two cutters to train with Western Pacific counterparts for more than 10 months. The service’s Sentinal-class Fast Response Cutters, three of which are stationed off Guam, are greatly reducing response times to malign activities.
The Coast Guard not only advanced these missions in the South China Sea and other waters around Taiwan but also in other theaters of China’s expanding interests. In the Arctic, China continues its icebreaking voyages to expand its global security and economic footprint in a vast region with minimal supervision. The USCG also continues to detect and deter economically exploitative practices off the shores of South America. For example, Operation Southern Cross, a multi-month deployment of a cutter, has quietly conducted meaningful operations to counter Chinese-enabled illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing campaigns in close cooperation with its Brazilian, Argentinian, Guyanese and Uruguayan counterparts.
The Coast Guard has also a proven track record of sensitive deployments to geo-politically contentious regions. Its Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA), strategically based in Bahrain near the Strait of Hormuz, has been invaluable in fortifying relationships with our Persian Gulf partners, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and bolstering maritime enforcement capacities that counter Iran.
The deployment in Bahrain offers a blueprint for success. The U.S. has steadily expanded its reliance on the USCG in its broader effort to counter China. However, to meet this expanded mandate and operational tempo, the Biden administration must provide the resources and attention that this formidable force and mission deserves. This is not merely confined to ships, but dedicating the training, technology and political backing needed to realize fully the Coast Guard’s role in the 21st century.
The measures that the USCG may take, based on its global experience and acumen in hazardous environments, will augment Taiwan’s security by strengthening its deterrence and defense against an attack. The Coast Guard offers a unique tool to advance the protection of Taiwan and other U.S. interests in an increasingly volatile region.
Adam Stahl is a national security professional with stints at the Senate Commerce and Foreign Relations Committees and the Department of Homeland Security. A former deputy chief of staff in the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans, he led the development of the department’s China and Arctic strategies. He now works for an energy company.
Bradley A. Thayer is co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”
NOTE: This article was edited after publication to clarify the type of cutter stationed off Guam.