The U.S. Coast Guard is touting increased operations in the Western Pacific, thousands of miles from American shores, as China’s coast guard and civilian fishing militias increasingly assert the country’s territorial claims.
A presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere will help enforce the sovereignty of partner nations in the disputed waters, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander Vice Admiral Linda Fagan told a conference call. Coast Guard cutters USCGC Bertholf and USCGC Stratton are being deployed with the Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan.
The ships will help “law enforcement and capacity-building in the fisheries enforcement realm,” Fagan said.
The move comes amid complaints from Asian nations about Chinese efforts to assert territorial claims in the East and South China seas. Besides a growing navy, China has centralized military control over its 200-ship China Coast Guard, equipped the force with larger ships and deputized civilian vessels to assist in the operations.
Trade tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated since May when President Donald Trump hiked tariffs after accusing Beijing of reneging on commitments in negotiations. The spat is spurring fears that the two nations are lurching toward an intractable rivalry, one that has already caused jitters in markets around the world.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in Singapore this month that the U.S. and China would eventually resolve their differences even as he criticized Beijing’s leaders for behavior that “sows distrust” in Asia. He told reporters that China’s militarization of the South China Sea seemed “excessive” and an “overkill” with surface-to-air missiles and long runways on isolated outposts.
The U.S. Navy has already put the American coast guard vessels to work, with the Bertholf joining a transit through the Taiwan Strait in March. Last month, the U.S. Coast Guard staged a joint exercise with two Philippine vessels in Chinese-claimed waters, reportedly sailing past two Chinese ships in the process.
“The Coast Guard’s areas of responsibility have grown over the last couple of decades,” said Paul Sullivan, a security expert at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “It looks like they are also being asked to do more to protect sea lanes and more in the Western Pacific as tensions mount with China.”
It was the first visit by the U.S. Coast Guard in seven years, Fagan said, adding the return to engagement was in line with prior actions and consistent with international law. “It is a recognized international strait and our ships sail through there,” Fagan said.
The Bertholf, a 418-foot national security cutter with 170 crew members, departed Alameda, California, in January to start its patrol in the Western Pacific Ocean. Fagan said then that the ship would engage in professional exchanges and capacity building with partner nations. The Stratton is a similarly-sized cutter that can be at sea for 90 days.
China asserts control over more than 80% of the South China Sea, a key shipping route also claimed by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
This is the time of year when China enforces a fishing plan off its shores, often resulting in confrontations between its coast guard and foreign fishing fleets. Vietnam and the Philippines have repeatedly complained of harassment from Chinese coast guard vessels, while Philippine officials have reported increased sightings of Chinese militia off the country’s coasts.
On Monday, two China Coast Guard vessels and two other militia boats were spotted circling the disputed Scarborough Shoal, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Captain Armand Balilo said in statement.
The U.S. Coast Guard was seeking to support Pacific partners in the region, Fagan said. “We are very much interested in engaging with partner nations in using our authorities and capacity building in a way that is helpful,” she said.