The U.S. Coast Guard is playing an increasingly important role in the U.S. military’s efforts to protect freedom of navigation and commerce in the Western Pacific amid rising tensions with China.
In 2023, the service plans to send three times as many cutters to the Pacific as it did last year, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mike Ryan, deputy commandant for operations policy and capabilities, told Defense One recently.
In total, the Coast Guard plans on conducting three out-of-hemisphere National Security Cutter deployments to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean this year, said Coast Guard spokesman Richard Kolko.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kimball has already deployed to the Western Pacific as of mid-February, conducting joint training with the Japanese Coast Guard. Two other U.S. Coast Guard cutters are scheduled to deploy to the region this year, Kolko told Task & Purpose.
Each of the Coast Guard’s 418-foot-long Legend-class National Security Cutters has a range of 12,000 nautical miles and a crew of up to 148 Coast Guardsmen. The vessels each feature a large flight deck and are equipped with advanced sensors and automatic weapons systems designed to stop rogue vessels far from shore.
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“The U.S. Coast Guard is a key component of the White House’s Indo-Pacific Strategy,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye, a spokeswoman for the service “A ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ relies on maritime security which includes joint cooperation and building partner capacity. The U.S. Coast Guard supports national/service level strategic priorities and there is a strong demand from like minded partners throughout the region for USCG expertise, capabilities, and partnership in shared interests in promoting maritime safety, security, and governance.”
In addition to deployments elsewhere in the Pacific, including the Arctic and Antarctic regions, the Coast Guard has sent four cutters to the Indo-Pacific region since 2019, Shaye told Task & Purpose. Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Midgett deployed to the Western Pacific as well as India and the Maldives.
The Coast Guard works with the U.S. military’s combatant commands as well as the Navy as part of the Defense Department’s efforts to integrate all military branches to deter adversaries, Shaye said. Typically, Coast Guard vessels that deploy to the Western Pacific operate under tactical control of the Navy’s 7th Fleet.
“Our ships and crews are capable of combined operations with U.S. and allied navies, while largely focused on professional [Coast Guard-coast guard] engagement advancing local or regional partner priorities and helping to boost capabilities to respond to a diverse range of threats,” Shaye said.
The increase in U.S. Coast Guard deployments comes as the China has become more aggressive in asserting its claim over waters administered by the Philippines and other countries in the Western Pacific.
“The two remaining patrols are in the planning stages, partner country engagements are still being finalized,” Shaye said. “The U.S. Coast Guard has a positive and robust working relationship with the Philippine Coast Guard, and previous U.S. Coast Guard patrols have included cooperative activities with PCG, both in port and at sea.”
The Coast Guard can help U.S. allies and partners assert their rights to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where China’s own coast guard and maritime militia forces are encroaching in sovereign nations’ exclusive economic zones, said James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Since 2013, China has built several artificial islands in the Spratly and Paracel Islands and seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines to claim that its territorial waters extend to the “nine-dash line,” an area claimed by Beijing that encompass roughly 90% of the South China Sea.
“Beijing is trying to assert its sovereignty within the nine-dashed line, meaning the Chinese Communist Party will make the laws and regulations governing what goes on, and to replace the international law of the sea in those waters and skies,” Holmes told Task & Purpose. “Freedom of the sea will be no more. China wins if no one successfully opposes its claim to maritime sovereignty.”
To push its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has made the strategic decision to rely on its coast guard and maritime militia forces rather than the Chinese navy, Holmes said.
“Send the PLA [People’s Liberation Army’ Navy and you’re the bully in everyone’s eyes; send the fishing fleet and coast guard and you’re policing what you claim is rightfully yours,” Holmes said.
China’s coast guard spent much more time in 2022 patrolling disputed areas in the South China Sea, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which was created by the Center for International and Strategic Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., to promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Chinese coast guard spent 310 days last year patrolling Vanguard Bank, where both Vietnam and China have outposts, up from 142 days in 2020, according to data collected by the Asia Maritime Transparency. China also increased its coast guard presence off the Scarborough Shoal, and a Chinese coast guard vessel prevented a Philippine navy boat from retrieving debris from Chinese rocket launches off Thitu island, which is administered by the Philippines.
The U.S. State Department also recently criticized China for a Feb. 6 incident during which a Chinese coast guard vessel used a laser to temporarily blind the crew of a Philippine coast guard ship while coming dangerously close to the Philippine patrol vessel.
“If the Philippines or Vietnam or some other neighbor can’t enforce its sovereign rights under the law of the sea, it starts looking as though these neighbors have acquiesced in China’s claims,” Holmes said.
Having the U.S. Coast Guard conduct joint patrols with the Philippines and other Indo-Pacific countries facing encroachment from China’s territorial claims would help those nations enforce their rights to navigation and show that the United States has “skin in the game of defending allies and partners.” Homes said.
“It’s one thing to bully the Philippine Coast Guard or Navy, another thing entirely to bully the Philippine Coast Guard or Navy backed up by the U.S. Coast Guard and our joint naval and air forces,” Holmes said.
CLARIFICATION: 2/28/2023; this story was updated to make clear which comments came from Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye.
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