Philippine Marines, members of military detachment stationed aboard BRP Sierra Madre, gesture at a Chinese Coastguard vessel on disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea in 2014. Photo: Reuters

UpdateA Swift proposal: US wants coastguard agreement with China to help keep peace at sea

US Pacific Fleet chief says pact aimed at avoiding maritime clashes should be broadened, with signs that China could be receptive to idea

The US is looking to expand a naval clash-prevention mechanism agreed with China to include the coastguards, the new US Pacific Fleet Commander said.

Admiral Scott Swift also sought to reassure US commitment in the regional allies but stressed the importance of having a positive relation with China.

Speaking to reporters in a teleconference from Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, Swift said the many regional counterparts had expressed “great angst” over the “scale and scope” of China’s reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

To reduce tensions at sea, Swift said the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a regional protocol signed in 2014, “is working quite well”, adding that US is interested in expanding the mechanism to the Chinese coastguard as well.

Since taking up the post three months ago, Swift has visited the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

He has discussed the potential use of the protocol by regional coastguards with the coastguard heads he has met within the region, according to Captain Charlie Brown, Pacific Fleet Public Affairs officer.

This idea was also raised during a video conference on Tuesday between Chinese naval head Admiral Wu Shengli and outgoing US chief of naval operations Admiral Jon Greenert.

Greenert was quoted by DefenseNews as saying that Wu agreed to support the suggestion, but added “Like the US, ‘our coastguard is in a separate department of the government’”. Greenert said US Coastguard commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft has been to China to present a proposal to the Chinese Coast Guard.

China has primarily deployed its coast guards to assert its claims in the South and East China Seas since tensions in both waters began to flare up few years ago. Most of the encounters in disputed waters involved coast guards while naval ships are usually “in the horizon so they are ready to respond to escalation”, according to a recent US Department of Defense’s recent report.

China has the biggest maritime law enforcement fleet in the region, with 95 large and 110 small vessels patrolling in regional waters, dwarfing Japan, which has 53 big and 25 small ships, and other South East Asian countries, according to the Pentagon report.

US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert (R) talks with PLA Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Wu Shengli during a welcoming ceremony at the PLA Navy headquarters outside of Beijing in 2014. Photo: Reuters

“What is important is to come together in a multilateral way and approach and reconcile the differences of claims within the region in a positive way and not allow the use of coercion or force as a lever to the benefit of one party,” Swift said.

While many in the region remain sceptical over US’ commitment, Swift said such query is “less a reflection of what the United States’ ability is to support the refocus, it’s more a reflection of the angst in theatre.”

But he added that it’s important to build positive relations with China as “it’s through deeper relationship that we have a better understanding of each other”.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said including the coastguard in the framework was reasonable, but both sides should make clear the mechanism would not pave the way for the US Navy to take provocative measures in the South China Sea, challenging China’s claims of sovereignty.

“Since the US once threatened to send aircraft and warships within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands, Beijing would be concerned whether there is [an ulterior] intent behind the expansion of the naval code,” Li said.



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Navy pact may expand to include coastguard