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Captain John Driscoll next to the US Coast Guard vessel Bertholf during a port stop in Hong Kong this month. SCMP / K. Y. Cheng

‘Oversubscribed’ US Navy leans more on coastguard to help counter China

  • As the Defence Department shifts its focus to competing with Russia and China, the coastguard ‘brings some authorities below the threshold of war’
  • ‘Realities in the South China Sea’ and the loss of two Navy destroyers in 2017 are helping to drive the shift

As a US coastguard cutter sailed through the East China Sea last month, Chinese vessels shadowed it on the high seas, service officials said. It was a reminder to the Americans of where they were: in a strategic area a couple hundred miles from China’s shores.

The situation underscored the evolving US response to the rise of China and the coastguard’s role operating missions typically closer to home. The coastguard is increasingly orienting itself toward China, senior officials said, by deploying new cutters, repositioning older ones and dispatching service members to countries such as Vietnam and Sri Lanka to help train those nations’ coastguards.

Admiral Karl Schultz, the coastguard commandant, said that as the Defence Department shifts its focus to competing with Russia and China, the Navy is “oversubscribed”.

The factors he cited include “realities in the South China Sea” and the loss of two Navy destroyers involved in deadly collisions in 2017.

US Ambassador Ted Osius, Centre, walking with Vietnam coastguard members as they inspect patrol boats during a delivery ceremony in Quang Nam in 2017, part of an ongoing move to increase cooperation amid tension in the disputed South China Sea. Photo: US Embassy in Hanoi via AP)

“The coastguard brings some capacity to that equation,” Schultz said in an interview. “The coastguard brings some authorities below the threshold of war. We’re US warships, but we look different, with a white hull and an orange stripe.”

The deployment of the USCGC Bertholf to the Asia-Pacific region from Alameda, California, in January marked an expansion of coastguard operations there.

The vessel, part of the service’s growing fleet of modern cutters, is under the control of the Navy’s 7th Fleet in the Asia-Pacific region during the deployment, despite the coastguard being part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Bertholf has carried out several missions that are typically assigned to the Pentagon, including a high-profile transit of the Taiwan Strait in March alongside the USS Curtis Wilbur, a Navy destroyer, that was meant to demonstrate that international waterways near China remain open.

More recently, the Bertholf made a port stop in Hong Kong on April 15, the first time the coastguard has visited the Chinese territory in 17 years. The ship has carried out sanctions-enforcement operations in the East China Sea, preventing illegal ship-to-ship transfers of cargo meant for North Korea.

The deployment of the USCGC Bertholf marks the first time in years that the coastguard has deployed a large vessel to the Asia-Pacific region.

The service has committed to the deployment later this year of another similar cutter, the USCGC Stratton, which will focus on training partner nations in the Asia-Pacific region to patrol their own waters, said Vice Admiral Linda Fagan, who leads coastguard operations in the region.

The coastguard did not want the Bertholf used “solely like a combatant” ship if it was deployed to the Pacific under Navy control, Fagan said she told defence Department officials.

A worker offloading pallets from the Bertholf in San Diego, California, last year. The offload included about 16,000kg of cocaine interdicted off the coasts of Central and South America. Photo: EPA-EFE

There also was a desire to show that national security cutters have “interoperability” with Navy ships, she said.

The coastguard also can provide deep insight into such areas as search-and-rescue operations and fisheries enforcement.

Air Force Brigadier General Dagvin Anderson, the deputy director of operations for US Indo-Pacific Command, said in a statement to The Washington Post that the coastguard “brings deep knowledge and unique capabilities” important to partners and allies in the region.

The service’s law enforcement authorities also complement the Defence Department’s objectives, he said.

The coastguard’s involvement in the region has included transferring a decommissioned coastguard cutter, the former USCGC Morgenthau, as well as aluminium shark boats to the Vietnamese coastguard.

The vessels will assist Vietnam in stopping smuggling, piracy and illegal fishing, according to a statement released by the US Embassy in Hanoi.

The US handed over another decommissioned coastguard cutter, the former USCGC Sherman, to the Sri Lankan navy last year.

The coastguard is in the process of adding fast-response cutters – manned by a crew of 24 people – in the Pacific. Three will be based in Hawaii and three in Guam. One already has sailed west from Honolulu to Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands.

The deployments of the national security cutters come as the coastguard wrestles with interdicting about 180,000kg (400,000 pounds) of cocaine per year closer to home, mostly off the coast of Colombia. Fagan acknowledged that cutters in the Asia-Pacific region might otherwise be deployed there, where the service has sought to put more vessels.

The Bertholf moored at Tsim Sha Tsui this month. Photo: SCMP / K. Y. Cheng

“That becomes a national-level, commandant-level conversation,” she said. “How do we not lose focus on the interdictions and the need to be present in the eastern Pacific, and the value of the national security cutters in that?”

Lyle Morris, an analyst with Rand Corp. who studies security issues in the region, said the coastguard has been involved in Asia “in a minor way” for decades but is now responding to requests from smaller nations in the region to control their own territorial waters.

“They see the role of law enforcement vessels and coastguards as relatively non-escalatory, or less escalatory, than a navy,” he said.

The need for the coastguard goes beyond countering China, he added.

“China is a factor, and an increasing factor, but I would say that it’s not the only factor,” he said. “The biggest constraint for these countries is the money. They just don’t have the money to buy a lot of new vessels.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: To counter China, US turns to coastguard cutters