Patrol boat diplomacy
The United States coastguard cutter Boutwell arrived in Shanghai on Thursday at the start of a four-day visit. It will pick up a Chinese law-enforcement officer while there, and then sail on to the northwestern Pacific to look for vessels engaged in illegal fishing. During the patrol, it is scheduled to call at Yokosuka in Japan and Petropavlosk in Russia.
The voyage reflects what a coastguard officer called 'a developing network for maritime security' that includes America, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Without much fanfare, coastguards and other law-enforcement agencies have been working together to detect fishermen who violate international agreements, illicit drug smugglers and traffickers in human beings.
Chinese patrol boats have taken part in exercises with US cutters and helicopters, and Russian and Japanese coastguards have co-ordinated operations against North Pacific drift-netters. A Japanese coastguard officer said they had captured a vessel smuggling drugs because a Chinese crew had radioed ahead a description of the vessel that had outrun them.
Several weeks ago, officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, China's Border Control Department, Japan's coastguard and South Korea's coastguard, gathered at the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum in Honolulu to discuss 'best practices'. The Russians didn't come, but they are hosting a high-level meeting in St Petersburg shortly.
High on the agenda was differences in legal systems, which the officers agreed was perhaps the biggest obstacle to working together because each nation gives different authority to its officers. China's legal system tends to be draconian. Japan's is layered with German and then American concepts. Korea's legal system, imposed by Japan's occupation of 1910-1945, is still infused with ancient Confucianism.
On the other hand, an exchange of ideas on how to discover hidden compartments went well. 'We know how to measure rather precisely,' said an American officer. 'We can make sure they can't put drugs in a secret place.'
Much was the same in swapping ideas on counter-drug operations, on training and certifying people to board ships suspected of wrongdoing and on when the use of force was permissible.
Even so, the coastguards, all on tight budgets, have a long way to go, and maritime relations among the six nations can sometimes be tense.
A Japanese military analyst, Kazuhisa Ogawa, was quoted in a Tokyo newspaper as saying: 'Japan, as a seafaring nation, does not have an adequate maritime monitoring system.'
Somehow, a ship from Vancouver managed to slip into the port of Osaka with 640kg of illicit drugs hidden in a shipment of lumber. Customs officials, suspecting something amiss, X-rayed the lumber and found a record cache. They arrested four Chinese, who contended they had come to pick up only the lumber.
Two months ago, the Russians arrested the captain of a Japanese trawler and charged him with catching salmon illegally.
The trawler, which had permission to fish in Russian waters on the Pacific side of the Kamchatka Peninsula but not to take a certain kind of salmon, is being detained until the owners pay a fine of 10 million rubles (HK$3.03 million).
In a wider perspective, the US' coastguard has been seeking to engage China just as have both the US military and State Department. The point is to draw the potentially hostile Chinese into constructive international activities - and to persuade them not to miscalculate US capabilities and intentions.
The director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, Lyle Goldstein, wrote this month: 'The coastguard is opening the door to a co-operative relationship with China.'
The Chinese have what Dr Goldstein calls 'an impressive array of boats, ships, helicopters, and maritime patrol aircraft' but they are 'not deployed with maximum efficiency' because they are operated by different agencies that often don't support each other. China's coastguard 'lacks aircraft and centralised command and is subordinated to regional border defence commands, limiting it to inshore enforcement'.
Dr Goldstein points to 'notable differences in priorities as the [US] coastguard is focused more than ever on the terrorist threat, while Chinese authorities are most focused on trade, safety and, of late, environmental issues'.
'Still,' he wrote, 'the fundamental tie between the organisations is that the US coastguard has centuries of experience in civil maritime management, while the issue is a comparatively new priority for China.'
Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington