I see no warships
The race is on and to the victor go the (hydrocarbon) spoils.
The white-hulled battle going on in the South China Sea, wrapped in a contest for rocky islands, beautiful atolls and untold riches in the ocean floor, is only going to ratchet up as nations position themselves for the long haul.
Just this last week at the ASEAN summit in Malaysia tensions have been aired like so much dirty laundry to the public, despite the best efforts of national leaders in showing regional solidarity by holding hands in a cringe-worthy gigantic human daisy chain.
With so much at stake in the region, from prestige, EEZs or wads of cash, the use of coast guards in staking national claims represent more of a mortar and pestle response rather than the hammer and anvil of a full navy deployment.
As one regional expert put it, coast guard vessels carry a lower risk of starting something overly kinetic compared to their grey-hulled counterparts.
But to cash-strapped nations like the Philippines this isn’t something they can do unilaterally, and in relying on countries such as the US and Japan for material and financial aid, could appear as proxies in any contest with China.
Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have all conducted exercises with the USCG, eager to learn from seafarers once described by a British admiral as ‘nonpareil’.
But despite the money, the new hulls, the training, what prospect of their being able to influence the largest coast guard in the world, which is busy adding hulls to its own fleet including two that will top out at around 12,000t?
When put in that context, it looks like the coast guard battles in the South China Sea face a protracted run, as national capabilities are upgraded and in turn outmoded by rivals keen to ensure their interests remain secure.