Lawships or warships? Coast guards as agents of (in)stability in the Pacific and South and East China Sea

Douglas Guilfoyle*, Edward Sing Yue Chan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Do coast guards generally promote good governance in the maritime domain, and are they a means of preventing conflict escalation? Sam Bateman argued that the use of ‘white hulled’ coast guard vessels was fundamentally less provocative than deploying gray-painted warships in contested waters. Thus, the use of ‘lawships’ instead of ‘warships’ could serve to de-escalate tensions. He also saw them as better able to pursue ends of oceans governance than naval vessels, for a range of reasons including the need for specialization. Nonetheless, there has been increasing concern that some coast guards are becoming a tool of ‘gray zone’ tactics: efforts to alter the strategic status quo short of armed conflict. China is often portrayed as using the China Coast Guard in such a manner. By contrast, the Australian Pacific Patrol Boats program – which gifts coast guard patrol assets to partner States – is often portrayed as an unqualified good. This paper examines both case studies in light of the Bateman thesis to conclude that the China Coast Guard may be more of a tool for de-escalation, or at least containment of tensions, than is commonly conceded and that the most obvious benefits of the Australian Pacific Patrol Boats program may have a strategic dimension.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105048
JournalMarine Policy
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


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