Armed with little more than flashing lights, loud hailers and water cannons, the Chinese Coast Guard is becoming the vanguard for the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The ostensibly civilian “white-hulled” fleet is a frequent presence in the disputed waters, confronting fishing and coast guard vessels from other claimant nations. By not deploying its gray-hulled navy too visibly, China is seeking to avert international condemnation that might result if it tried to impose its territorial assertions with warships.

That distinction is important as the U.S. has now authorized a navy warship to sail into the 12-nautical-mile zone that China claims around some man-made islands in the South China Sea, according to a U.S. defense official. The question is whether China would use a patrol by a U.S. ship, the first of which began Tuesday morning, as a reason to bring in its navy, a move that would significantly raise tensions in the area.

“Initially it would be the coast guard, but I worry about escalation control,” said Susan Shirk, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. “I think we have to anticipate that the PLA navy would respond in some manner.” Shirk is now chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California.

China has utilized its coast guard in the area in an effort to underline the political message that it considers at least 80 percent of the South China Sea to be its sovereign territory, and therefore subject to its domestic laws.

The claim is based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map that does not give precise coordinates. The vessels often operate in waters around the reefs on which China has been building airstrips, buildings and lighthouses.

“China is employing its coast guard as aggressive instruments of state policy to assert territorial claims,” said Lyle Morris, a project associate at Rand Corp. who has traveled this year to Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Japan to study their coast guards. “And they are adopting more assertive tactics.”

In June, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel flanked a Chinese fishing boat in waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, according to Rear Adm. A. Taufiq R., commander of the Indonesian Western Fleet. The islands lie outside the nine-dash line and Taufiq said he ordered the Chinese vessels to leave. Indonesia doesn’t dispute territory with China, though some officials have expressed concern about China’s intentions.

The U.S. says it doesn’t take sides over the South China Sea but officials including Defense Secretary Ash Carter have repeatedly said the country will protect freedom of navigation by sailing and flying wherever international law permits.

It has already flown Poseidon surveillance aircraft in the area, though not within the 12-mile zones set out by China.

China may still opt to challenge U.S. patrols into the 12-mile zones with its coast guard, according to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “They would spin it as: ‘Here is the United States, which is the source of all problems in the South China Sea, bullying our civilian coast guard vessels in an area where we have legitimate jurisdictional rights.’ “

China has amassed the largest white-hulled fleet in Asia to back its assertions to the South China Sea, alongside its claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Parts of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a conduit for trade and energy supplies between Europe and Asia, are also claimed by countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

China sent its coast guard to protect an oil exploration rig it parked in waters contested with Vietnam last year, using the boats to ram and fire water cannon at Vietnamese law enforcement boats. In 2012 China used its coast guard to help seize the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.

In an acknowledgment of the role of the Chinese Coast Guard, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift said in August that Washington is seeking to include ut in protocols the countries agreed to that are designed to avoid flare-ups during unexpected encounters of each other’s navy ships.

“Many of the encounters at sea that my naval ships have are as frequent with the Chinese Coast Guard” as they are with Chinese navy ships, said Swift.

China’s top admiral, Wu Shengli, last week cited the navy-to- navy protocols when he said U.S.-Chinese naval relations were at their “best time in history.”

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates China has about 205 maritime law enforcement vessels, while Japan has 78 vessels, Vietnam 55 and the Philippines just four. “Typically, Beijing prefers to employ its coast guard in the forefront of maritime sovereignty operations, with PLA(N) ships providing a less overt security guarantee,” it said in a report published in April.

“It is a numbers game,” the Rand Corp.’s Morris said. “When you are trying to assert sovereignty and you have more vessels than the other guys, then you are usually going to win.”

China is apparently converting former naval vessels into coast guard ships, according to IHS Jane’s, which in July published photos of two frigates being painted white at a naval shipyard.

“Even if you take the guns and things off, these are very large vessels, which means long endurance and they could operate cooperatively with actual combatants,” said Dean Cheng, who specializes in military capabilities as a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

The expansion has led other countries to develop their own civilian fleets and prompted regional maritime security cooperation agreements, with the U.S. and Japan emerging as key players helping to build coast guard capacity.

Japan is supplying the Philippines with 10 patrol vessels and Vietnam with six.

In September, Japan and Vietnam signed a memorandum of cooperation between their coast guard agencies.

U.S. aid comes in the guise of the maritime law enforcement initiative unveiled by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013.

This month the U.S. said it will provide more than $100 million to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, up from $25 million at the program’s inception.

Those figures pale in comparison with the budget China devotes to its fleet.

Morris of Rand Corp. estimates China spent about $1.7 billion a year on its fleet over the past five years.

Only Japan’s budget comes near, at about $1.5 billion a year. Over the same period other Asia-Pacific countries spent $100 million-$200 million a year, according to Morris.

“The bottom line is that other countries can’t use their navies to counteract what China is doing because that would be looked at as unnecessarily escalatory,” said Morris. “So they realize they need to invest in their coast guards but the problem is that they don’t have nearly so much funding. They are challenged on how to respond.”

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