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A US coastguard cutter’s crew trains in the Pacific Ocean in September. Photo: Handout/US Coast Guard

US Coast Guard renegotiating deal with China for joint enforcement, even as it bulks up presence in western Pacific

  • The USCG is looking to revive a lapsed agreement with the Chinese Coast Guard to conduct operations such as cracking down on illegal fishing
  • It is simultaneously deploying more American-flagged cutters to the region, though it has ruled out sending them to the South China Sea for now
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is renegotiating a lapsed agreement with its Chinese counterpart to jointly conduct law enforcement operations at sea, even as it deploys more American-flagged cutters to the western Pacific in light of China’s growing naval capabilities.

Admiral Karl Schultz, the USCG’s commandant, last week told a press briefing that the once cooperative and amicable partnership between the two coastguards to go after illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing had lapsed for “over a year now”.

“We had a shiprider memorandum agreement with the Chinese over the years [covering the North Pacific]. We’re at the table renegotiating that MOU today,” he said.

Under a shiprider agreement with the US, a country’s authorities can board USCG vessels while they are on patrol, or vice versa. The country’s authorities can also authorise the USCG to take action on their behalf.

Over more than 20 years, there had been 109 Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) officers who were shipriders aboard USCG cutters, and they helped seize 21 vessels that were engaged in illegal drift-net fishing in the North Pacific waters, Zhao Jian, deputy director of CCG’s international cooperation office, told the 2018 Asean Regional Forum in Brisbane.

But amid deteriorating bilateral ties, the USCG last year singled out the CCG as the “main perpetrator of global IUU fishing because it has the largest distant-water fishing fleet in the world, estimated at nearly 17,000 vessels”.

In a December paper, Chinese researcher Yan Yan suggested that this accusation was “an attempt to create a conducive atmosphere for the USCG to take actions against China”. The US had since 2019 sent USCG vessels to the South China Sea to counter China’s “grey zone” tactics, said the director of the Research Center of Oceans Law and Policy in the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies (NISCSS).

The USCG operates under the US Department of Homeland Security, but can be ordered to support the Department of Defence. This made it “an important option in the toolkit of the South China Sea policy of future US administrations”, Yan Yan said.

US Admiral Karl Schultz in 2018. Photo: AFP

USCG commandant Schultz in the briefing last week took aim at the CCG, saying its ships and militia boats were “running down other regional fishermen in disputed spaces [and] that behaviour does not seem consistent to me with how the world’s best coastguards should operate and … act”.

His comments came after he commissioned three fast-response cutters that will be permanently based in Guam, in the western Pacific. Besides suppressing IUU fishing, he said, the cutters would “safeguard a free and open Indo-Pacific, and really help achieve national security objectives in the Micronesia region”.

The cutters can remain at sea for five days, and the move to deploy them comes as the USCG expands its footprint in Oceania, a region that includes US territories such as the Northern Mariana Islands but also independent Pacific island nations such as Vanuatu and Kiribati. Washington already has shiprider agreements with 11 Pacific island nations to counter IUU fishing.

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The region hosts critical sea lines of communication that connect the US to the Pacific, and is where the US and its allies, such as Australia, have increasingly jostled for influence with China.

‘Threats in the region’

However, Schultz ruled out sending the three cutters and the USCG’s C-130 Hercules aircraft, currently stationed in Hawaii, to the South and East China Seas in the near term. “If we do some additional work in [those waterways], that’s likely to be accomplished in the near term by our national security cutters,” he said.


Philippine fishermen claim continued Chinese harassment on South China Sea

Philippine fishermen claim continued Chinese harassment on South China Sea

Known as the legacy cutters, these are the USCG’s largest vessels, but only two are stationed in Hawaii. Eleven more will be built.

The USCG will continue collaborating with Southeast Asian partners in the Pacific, Schultz said. He noted that it had donated two of its 378-foot high-endurance cutters to Vietnam and stationed an officer there as a liaison, and that he was “eager” to see how the Vietnamese would use those cutters “to thwart the threats in the region”.
Schultz also credited the USCG with helping the Philippine Coast Guard strengthen its force over the past decade from 5,000 men to around 15,000 today.

Ian Storey, a senior fellow with the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the USCG could make a difference in the South China Sea conflict by conducting, under the direction of Pentagon, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) – or by having shiprider agreements with Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) states. The USCG has only ever done a FONOP in the Taiwan Strait.

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Since the USCG’s lightly armed ships are viewed as “less provocative” than heavily armed warships, Storey agreed that the USCG “occupies the sweet spot between lethality and diplomacy”, a point also made by Schultz.

“Shiprider agreements would give the USCG the legal authority to address IUU fishing in the South China Sea. But I don’t think any Southeast Asian state would be willing to incur China’s wrath by doing so,” Storey said, adding that the strength of the CCG was larger than the number of ships and tonnage of all of Asean’s maritime law enforcement agencies put together.

“Some Chinese Coast Guard vessels are over 10,000 tonnes – that’s the size of a [World War II] destroyer,” he said.

Yan Yan of the NISCSS argued in her paper that the USCG had no business conducting law enforcement activities in the South China Sea since it had no territory there “and so does not enjoy any maritime entitlements generated from the territory”.

The 12,000-tonne China Coast Guard cutter 3901 is the world’s largest coastguard vessel. Photo: Handout

Because of this, she said, one option left to the USCG would be to try to forge shiprider agreements with Asean states, and Vietnam could be the first to come on board. Hanoi has been the most vocal claimant against Beijing in the continuing South China Sea dispute.

“Although most littoral states of the South China Sea are not willing to choose sides between China and the US, the first one to conduct joint law enforcement operations with the US is probably none other than Vietnam,” she wrote.

‘Great wall at sea’

However, Yan Yan pointed out that all other shiprider agreements with the US involved “non-disputed waters”, therefore it was not legitimate for other claimant states to cede to the US the right of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) when they were actually disputed waters.

She made no mention of whether China would renew its own shiprider agreement with the US in the North Pacific.

Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said it was possible to expect the USCG to have a greater “white hull show of flag presence” in the region.

“[However], we have to be mindful that the USCG is not envisaged to carry out maritime law enforcement tasks in the EEZs of the Southeast Asian littoral states in the South China Sea,” he said. “It’s after all a sensitive issue concerning these countries’ jurisdictional rights as coastal states policing their own EEZs.”

Koh also pointed out that if the USCG involved itself in FONOPs, “the Chinese are likely to accuse the Americans of escalating or complicating the situation by involving white hulls in such operations. They have already been very wary of USCG activities [in the South China Sea, and have been] shadowing and watching USCG exercises with the Philippine Coast Guard in recent years.”

Manila-based security analyst Chester Cabalza said he believed China’s move to amend its Coast Guard Law earlier this year, allowing it to fire on foreign vessels in waters “under China’s jurisdiction”, was done in anticipation of the USCG playing a greater role in the region.

China has built a “great wall at sea [that is] highly militarised, that delivers commanding heights of fear to its neighbours, even to major powers within its periphery”, said Cabalza, who founded the International Development and Security Cooperation think tank.

“Both [the US and China] have now ignited the fire for tight competition that surely will bring heightened tensions in the future … there will never be two rulers in the South China Sea,” he added.

Storey from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said it was “highly possible” for USCG cutters to conduct FONOPs in the waterway, as even if it might increase tensions, “something has to be done about IUU fishing and overfishing in the South China Sea as fish stocks are on the brink of collapse”.

Because of this, Storey said, “it will be very difficult” for the US to revive its shiprider agreement with China in the North Pacific area “given the deteriorating relationship between the US and China today”.

Koh was more optimistic. “I believe despite the ongoing Sino-American tensions, the MOU still stands a chance of being renewed,” he said. “After all, there’s a good amount of experience and goodwill built up through this North Pacific joint fishery enforcement scheme.”