Written by Wu Shang-Su

Taipei’s expansion of its coast guard fleet with four large offshore patrol vessels (OPV) demonstrates its concerns about Beijing’s assertiveness and potential policy responses on the South China Sea (SCS).

Since the early 2010s, Taiwan has significantly strengthened its coast guard fleet with larger capacity by acquiring seven 1,000-ton, two 2,000-ton, and two 3000-ton OPVs, as well as four 4,000-ton cutters that are under construction.

Taipei first deployed coast guard vessels to replace its marine garrisons in Itu Aba and Pratas in 1999. At the time, the Taiwanese coast guard did not have an adequate fleet to deploy in the SCS.

Before the four large OPVs, Taiwan’s coast guard fleet was second only to China’s among the SCS claimant states, but the distance makes such an advantage meaningless due to the limited operation period and number of deployed vessels Taipei could maintain.

With the four 4,000-ton ships, Taipei will be able to send three large OPVs to the SCS every month, with each staying onsite at least 12 days, thus achieving a continuous at sea presence.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A Taiwanese Coast Guard patrol ship, Kaohsiung (CG 129), is seen during a rescue drill near the coast of Itu Aba, which the Taiwanese call Taiping, at the South China Sea, November 29, 2016.

Taiwan’s new OPVs, equipped with a medical capacity equivalent to a field hospital, as well as a helicopter deck and hanger for operating a UH-60 Black Hawk, will have potential to carry out humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) operations – an increasingly important issue in the regional security of East Asia.

In parallel, the onshore coast guard units on Taiwan’s SCS holdings will upgrade their firepower with M-114A1 155 mm howitzers, weapons with a far longer range than the existing 120 mm mortars and other weapon systems.

Taiwan’s coast guard build-up is a mainstream approach to asserting sovereignty in the SCS. Sending in the coast guard, a law enforcement department, not only strengthens the sovereignty claim, but also lowers the chance of accidental war, as the vast majority coast guard vessels are not armed.

Among the SCS claimants, only Brunei’s police coast guard is not equipped with OPVs. Some major ones, such as China and Vietnam, have broadly applied coast guards for confrontation and low-intense conflicts. For Taiwan, deploying the coast guard reveals another consideration: the political dilemma. The Republic of China (ROC), the official title of the Taipei authority, is actually the creator of the eleven-dash line, the foundation of Beijing’s nine-dash line, and the ROC’s official territorial claim on the SCS mirrors that of the People's Republic of China’s.

In reality, Taiwan has neither the resources nor proximity to back its claims. Likewise, maintaining amicable relations with adjacent Southeast Asian countries are crucial for its economy and diplomacy in the face of heavy pressure from China.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Taiwan coast guard patrol boats along the coast of the Pratas Islands.

However, were Taipei waive or merely adjust its territorial claims, the move would inevitably be construed as a shift towards the most sensitive issue of all, its de jure independence.

Thus, sending the coast guard to the SCS, earlier than other claimants, could also be viewed as Taipei’s solution to a bevy of legal, political and other concerns.

Despite these considerable efforts, Taiwan’s coast guard still faces challenges in SCS. Firstly, Taiwan’s international isolation unavoidably impedes cooperation and other interactions between its coast guard and international counterparts. For example, Taiwan’s coast guard is unable to participate in the exercises and other activities held by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Similarly, Taiwan is also excluded in the process of making the code of conducts between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Therefore, Taiwan’s coast guard may be in an inferior position in terms of information sharing, accident prevention and other issues in the highly internationalized SCS. In case of conflict, particularly with foreign counterparts such as Beijing, the detachment of Taiwan’s coast guard would be seriously tested.

Secondly, Taiwan’s coast guard has no manned aircraft. Taiwan’s coast guard is introducing rotary drones with a 30 km radius, but this scope is too narrow for the SCS. Despite the facilities for helicopters, the coast guard relies on Black Hawks from the National Airborne Service Corps.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter takes part in anti-invasion drill, simulating China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) invading the island, in Taoyuan, Taiwan on Oct. 9, 2018.

In waters adjacent to Taiwan, a task force between the two departments would be workable, but deployment thousands of kilometers away would require a more ambitious arrangement. Based on the large size of the SCS, fixed-wing aircraft would be useful for search and patrol in addition to vessels. The ROC Navy’s P-3C maritime patrol aircraft would serve this role, but they could be occupied with other naval missions, such as anti-submarine.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

US Navy P-3C Orion anti-submarine planes are seen at Kadena US Air Force Base on the southwestern Japanese island of Okinawa.

Thirdly, it is much quicker to build ships than to mature a talent pool of both quality and quantity. Since the expansion of large OPVs, shortage of personnel has become a challenge. Within the shrinking demographic structure and career competition with the militaries and commercial maritime, Taiwan’s coast guard faces difficulties in recruitment and retention of experienced personnel.

Finally, unlike other claimant states with geographic adjacency, Taiwan’s naval and air powers may not rapidly support its coast guard. In other words, there would be narrow or no space for escalation in conflicts.

Expanding the coast guard in the SCS is a continuous strategy conducted by the administrations of both Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). In the near future, Taiwan’s role in the troubled water will be enlarged, adding a new factor to the complicated situation. If the Taiwan coast guard's onsite presence is durable and significant, it may create favorable circumstances for functional participation in some international activities in the SCS.

Before that, the constraints mentioned above will challenge Taiwan’s decision makers, policy planners and field commanders on how to properly operate their remote coast guard units.

Wu Shang-Su is a Research Fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Image credit: CC by U.S. Navy/Flickr.