Early last December, the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Myrtle Hazard sailed through the night, anchored off the Pacific island nation of Palau and boarded a group of Chinese boats to help seize tens of thousands of dollars worth of sea cucumber that had allegedly been harvested illegally.
The fast-response cutter, operating around 6,600 miles from the continental U.S. and roughly 750 miles from its home port in the U.S. territory of Guam, is part of the Coast Guard’s newest growth area: helping counter China’s growing naval power in the Pacific.
China has used coordinated action by its fishing fleets, coast guard and navy to establish its presence in the South China Sea. It increasingly also has a presence in the South and Central Pacific. Chinese fishing fleets have shown up in force around island nations like the Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu, which have some of the richest tuna fisheries in the world, and China’s navy has established itself in the area as well, including with a stopover by warships in Sydney in 2019 and visits by a naval hospital ship to Fiji in 2018.
The U.S. Coast Guard is building up in the region in response. In the past few months, it based two of its most advanced new cutters in the U.S. territory of Guam, nearly 4,000 miles closer to Shanghai than it is to San Francisco. One more is due to arrive in the coming months. For the first time, the Coast Guard has an attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, Australia, and another attaché will move to Singapore next year.
The Coast Guard has been steadily increasing its activity in the Western Pacific and near China’s shores. It deployed cutters to the Western Pacific for more than 10 months in 2019 to work with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet. One, the USCGC Bertholf, transited the Taiwan Strait in a show of defiance to China, the first U.S. Coast Guard vessel to make the highly politicized trip.
“All this changed with the National Defense Strategy,” Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst at Rand Corp., referring to a 2018 Pentagon document. “The biggest transition has been the Coast Guard’s more overt signaling about its role in the great power competition with China.”
While the U.S. Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, its work with the Pentagon is growing. U.S. government data show Coast Guard vessels spent 326 days in support of the Department of Defense in 2019, compared with an average of just 50 to 100 days over the previous five years. All of the 2019 deployments were in the Indo-Pacific. The Coast Guard’s mission has traditionally focused on protecting U.S. maritime borders, but it has at times played a role supporting the Navy.
The Department of Defense has also signaled the need to focus more on the region. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first overseas trip, which began this week, takes him to the Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. and allies with a strong naval presence in the Pacific, such as Australia and France, are concerned that China, having established a solid hold on the South China Sea, is moving farther afield to find less-depleted fishing grounds and expand its strategic position. The Coast Guard deployments are meant to allow the U.S. to confront those probes with less risk of a military incident than if U.S. Navy ships were involved.
“Sending the Coast Guard to the region to train our partners makes perfect sense,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “They can do all this without as much of a risk of complication that the Navy would pose doing the same job.”
Much of the work is enforcement activity at the front end of China’s probes—its fishing fleet. In the Republic of Palau, the Chinese fishing boat and six smaller craft had been detained over the sea-cucumber allegations. The Coast Guard came in to help local authorities with the boarding and document checks.
Palau, like Pacific nations Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, is in a compact of free association with the U.S., which allows them to remain independent while gaining some of the benefits afforded to U.S. territories.
While many of the Pacific’s small islands have a growing ability to protect their own waters, the new Coast Guard vessels increased U.S. ability to provide security and stability, said Capt. Christopher Chase, the Coast Guard’s commanding officer in the Guam region.
The Coast Guard is investing more than $19 billion in at least eight national-security cutters, 25 offshore-patrol cutters, and 58 fast-response cutters. If all goes to plan this year, at least eight of those ships will be deployed in a position to counter China. The Coast Guard is also investigating stationing a ship in American Samoa.
The new national-security cutters, the centerpiece of the fleet, are able to travel farther and faster in worse conditions. They are armed with a naval gun system and heavy machine guns, and have decks on which helicopters can land.
The force also will work with nations in the Pacific and Southeast Asia on more mundane but relationship-building tasks like repairing ships, training crews and replacing navigational buoys.
China has used its own coast guard, the world’s largest, to accompany its fishing fleet and harass vessels engaged in oil exploration and other commercial activity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
In the summer of 2019, the USCGC Bertholf docked in Manila, the Philippines, following exercises with local counterparts.
Cmdr. Gary Gimotea was skipper of a 184-foot Philippine Coast Guard vessel participating in search-and-rescue training with the Americans about 70 nautical miles from the contested Scarborough Shoal. A Chinese ship shadowed them all day.
“They become more aggressive and challenge you as you get closer to the Scarborough Shoal,” Cmdr. Gimotea said of the Chinese ships they often encounter on patrol. “It’s quite reassuring to have the U.S. when we conduct these exercises.”
Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Pacific, said the Indo-Pacific command and countries in the region would like to see a more regular Coast Guard presence in the South China Sea area, and that the force would look for opportunities to return.
“Being a bit smaller than the U.S. Navy and definitely a bit more nimble and flexible is all viewed positively by our partners,” Vice Admiral Fagan said in an interview.
Write to Lucy Craymer at Lucy.Craymer@wsj.com and Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org
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