Prior to World War II, the Japanese navy seized hundreds of Pacific islands in an expansionist land grab that was brutally rolled back by the United States.
Wary of sparking a similar conflagration, China has begun to lean on its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to more gently press its influence on areas of the South China Sea and other regions.
China's reliance on law-enforcement instead of military assets to assert its regional dominance has created a conundrum for the U.S. Navy, which risks sparking an international incident by using warships to check China's westward advance.
The situation calls for increased U.S. Coast Guard presence in the western Pacific, said Capt. David Adams, commander of the Navy's 7th Fleet.
"We have no white hulls in the Pacific, hardly," Adams said. "We are going to have to fund the Coast Guard, not to do their conventional missions, but to come and help with the white-hull problem out in the Pacific."
Aircraft carriers and other symbols of U.S. naval might that are popular with Defense Department war planners are not effective against China's soft-power expansionism, Adams said. While Navy officials are preparing for a high-end anti-access, area-denial style conflict, China is pursuing a hybrid approach to war that includes legal, economic, high-tech, cyber and other veiled offensive maneuvers that are unlikely to provoke a high-scale war, he said.
"Navy culture is one that envisions itself primarily conducting sweeping fleet actions across the Pacific," Adams said. "That is not the war we are going to fight. ... And we have to be cautious that selling the United States Navy on that concept is akin to selling drinks to an alcoholic. Somebody is going to have to pay the tab."
Unlike the Navy, the Coast Guard has law enforcement authorities within the U.S. economic zone, which is why its personnel are often deployed on Navy ships.
Unfortunately for the Navy, the Coast Guard's oceangoing fleet is not up to the task of performing its mandated duties in the Western Hemisphere and sending more ships out into the Pacific, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp said.
"We don't have a lot more white hulls to push out into the Pacific," he said. "What we do have is Coast Guard expertise to work with our partners in the Pacific. Our first and most important partner is the United States Navy."
China recently created its own coast guard that was based so closely on its U.S. counterpart, its ships' newly...