Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea has driven many Southeast Asian nations to expand their coastguard capabilities as a way to maintain a presence in the region without risking military engagement, an Australian think tank said. To stop maritime encounters, with China or each other, escalating into military conflicts, countries with claims to the disputed waterway have been transferring security forces from their navies to their coastguards, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said in a report published on Wednesday. “The coastguards have become important strategic cushions between navies in Asean,” it said, using the acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China and Asean reach ‘milestone’ draft deal on South China Sea code of conduct Beyond the threats from piracy, terrorism, organised crime and illegal fishing, the primary reason for nations increasing their coastal forces has been “China’s aggressive maritime strategy”, including the construction of military outposts and distant fishing activities in other countries’ exclusive economic zones, the report said. The use of the civilian form of law enforcement allows countries to maintain a presence and protect their sovereignty claims in the sea without the tension of a military deployment, meaning they are less likely to offend China, it said. Return of Mahathir Mohamad to Asean may put a third power in the picture – Japan Of the 45 major incidents to have been reported in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2016, 32 involved at least one China Coast Guard or other Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel, it said. One of the most tense was the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off between the Philippine navy and the China Marine Surveillance (which was later merged with the nation’s coastguard). The incident began when the former attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen it spotted operating near the reef, which is claimed by Beijing, Taipei and Manila, but at the time was under the de facto control of Manila. The stand-off lasted more than two months and ended with the Philippines backing down and effectively losing control of the area to China. Asean gets tough on the US over trade, but tiptoes around South China Sea build-up According to the Australian report, the Philippines added 14 boats and two transport aircraft to its coastguard fleet in 2013, and a further 14 vessels three years later. Similarly, Malaysia bolstered its coastal patrol force with the addition of 105 new boats in the 2013-14 period. Between 2005 and 2016, Indonesia increased its coastguard fleet from nine vessels to 34, the report said, while Vietnam boosted its coastal force by eight vessels to 40 and almost doubled its fleet of navy patrol ships from 37 to 71. Despite their tense stand-off more than six years ago, China last week offered to donate four patrol boats to the Philippines. Zhang Mingliang, an expert in Southeast Asian studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, southern China’s Guangdong province, said Asean coastguards were likely to expand still further as the United States rolled out its Indo-Pacific strategy to compete with China in the region. “We can foresee more donations of vessels and equipment, training of personnel, or financial assistance to the maritime forces from the US and its allies in the region, like Japan, South Korea and Australia,” he said. China to take part in Australian naval war games despite tensions between two sides While the report said Australia should promote “greater regional coastguard cooperation” with Asean members, Zhang said such a move would be difficult to execute. However, if there was such an agreement, Asean was likely to be open to it as it could be used as a political tool to balance China’s power in the region, he said.