COLUMN | The rise of the Southeast Asian coast guards [NAVAL GAZING]

The last 20 years have seen an exponential growth in coast guard services in Southeast Asia. There are a number of factors driving this radical expansion. Most importantly, the growth in global trading activity has led to a dramatic rise in regional maritime activity. Traffic transiting the Straits of Malacca, for instance, has doubled during this time, resulting in a proportionate increase in demand for monitoring, regulatory, security and safety services

Also, maritime territorial disputes increasingly, for diplomatic and political reasons, require the involvement of paramilitary, rather than naval, assets. Further factors to be considered are protection of offshore energy and fishing resources, and conservation issues such as pollution prevention and response, and the protection of coral reefs.

Also, the proactive stance of the very large, and well-equipped China Coast Guard is proving to be further catalyst for the expansion of regional coast guards, most of which include small aviation units, operating fixed and rotary wing assets.

Indonesia

In May of this year the Indonesian government announced that its two main paramilitary forces, namely the Sea and Coast Guard (SCG), and the Maritime Security Agency MSA), are to merge, to form the Indonesia Coast Guard. Former MSA and SCG vessels now available to the new force include modern, indigenously-built 110-metre and 80-metre patrol vessels, some 30 older 60- and 40-metre patrol craft, and hundreds of smaller vessels.

Tasks with which the new service will have to come to grips with include multiple incursions by Vietnamese and Chinese fishing vessels, and protecting the sovereignty of Natuna Island.

Indonesian Coast Guard patrol vessel Jembio

Malaysia

In 2017 the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency was renamed the Malaysia Coast Guard (MCG). The largest units currently on the MCG inventory are a pair of patrol ships transferred from the Japan Coast Guard two years ago.

Three 83-metre Damen patrol boats, being built locally by THHE Destini, are under construction, and there are more than 200 other craft including two ex-Australian Bay-class patrol boats, a variety of smaller craft and some fast interceptors. 

Myanmar

Myanmar has over the past decade evolved, almost unnoticed, into a significant regional naval power, backed by a sizeable indigenous warship construction industry. The country’s defence ministry, meanwhile, has announced that a dedicated coast guard service is to be created in the near future.

The Philippines

Formerly a rather low-key element of the Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) emerged as a stand-alone force in 1998, and has since become one the best-equipped such forces in the region. A programme of commissioning new vessels continues apace.

Due in service late this year is the Gabriela Silag, an 84-metre OPV being constructed by OCEA in France, while the upgraded Austal shipyard in Cebu is scheduled soon to commence building for the PCG a class of six 80-metre, helicopter capable OPVs, based on the Cape-class which is in service with Australian Border and Customs Service, and the Royal Australian Navy.

PCG MRRV Tubbataha

Commissioned over the last two years have been ten 45.5-metre multi-role response vessels, built by United Marine in Japan. The long-rumoured transfer of a pair of large patrol ships from the Japan Coast Guard to the PCG has, though, yet to materialise.

The PCG already operates more than 500 vessels, of varying age and origins, ranging from OPVs to RHIBs. Major responsibilities include combating piracy and terrorism in the south of the country, and supporting Manila’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS).        

Singapore

Singapore’s uniquely named Police Coast Guard does not operate any large vessels.

Its mainly modern flotilla of more than 100, mostly indigenously-built, patrol craft carries out marine policing duties around the republic’s coast, and on and around its offshore islands. Many of its patrol vessels are armed with remotely controlled cannon or machine guns

As well as conventional craft, the service makes use of fast interceptor boats, land- based coastal surveillance equipment, and locally-constructed, sensor-equipped unmanned surface vehicles

The service does also have offshore responsibilities, namely search and rescue (SAR) and maritime sovereignty enforcement, in co-operation with the Republic of Singapore Navy.                                            

Thailand

Thailand does not have a dedicated coast guard service, but units of the Royal Thai Navy are assigned to its Coast Guard Command, on a rotational basis. Assigned vessels, which often include Chinese-built type 053HT frigates, are responsible for SAR, and law enforcement, within Thai territorial waters.    

Vietnam

Vietnam is by far the most vigorous opponent of China’s aggressive stance in the SCS, and the nation’s thriving economy has enabled the establishment of the region’s most ambitious coast guard service.

Vessels acquired by the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) over the past decade include four Vietnamese-built Damen OPVs, a former US Coast Guard cutter, three Damen patrol craft, an ex-Korea Coast Guard OPV and 18 American-built Metal Shark 45 fast patrol boats.

New assets in the pipeline include a pair of 123-metre, helicopter-equipped OPVs, to be constructed by Damen’s Song Thu subsidiary, eight locally-built 1,600 tonne patrol ships, and six Polish-designed dedicated SAR ships, with four of them to be built in Vietnam. Positioning the SAR ships in the SCS might prove to be an astute political move.

Already a major force in the region, with more than 150 craft of various types on strength, the VCG is therefore well set for further expansion.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.