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The U.S Coast Guard is focused on helping Pacific island nations combat illegal activities in an effort to strengthen their allegiance to Washington as China’s influence grows across the region, its highest-ranking officer said on Monday.
Admiral Karl Schultz said the coastguard was “doubling down” on its work in the eastern Pacific, and last month had conducted an operation to counter illegal fishing in Samoa that he expected would be replicated elsewhere in the region.
The coastguard would also be sending three vessels to the western Pacific territory of Guam in the next 18 to 24 months, Schultz added.
“We are on a trajectory where the geostrategic importance of the Oceania region has not been higher in decades,” said Schultz, the organisation’s 26th commandant.
The US Coast Guard last month conducted Operation Aiga to help Samoa and US territory American Samoa counter illegal fishing and patrol their territorial waters, along with support from the navies of Australia and New Zealand.
Schultz said they had plans to replicate this type of operation elsewhere in the Pacific, including in the Federated States of Micronesia, which along with the Marshall Islands and Palau maintain a defence agreement known as the Compact of Free Association, granting the United States exclusive access to their vast territorial waters.
The intensified focus on the region comes after multiple Pacific island nations established diplomatic ties with China in the past two months. Beijing has grown the size of its coastguard fleet from 185 vessels in 2017 to the current 248, according to a report published by the US Congressional Research Service.
In a highly publicised decision, the Solomon Islands last month decided to drop its decades-long diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favour of mainland China. A week later neighbouring Kiribati followed suit, leaving Taipei with ties to only Tuvalu, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Nauru in the Pacific.
Last week a Chinese company known as China Sam Enterprise Group said it had been granted the rights to develop the entire island of Tulagi – the capital of the Solomon Islands’ Central Province – raising alarm in Australia that China may have military desires for the island nation less than 2,000km (1,243 miles) off its coast.
Central Province had granted the company the rights to “investment, trade, infrastructure, agriculture, fishery, communication, tourism and other fields”, China Sam said.
Schultz positioned the US Coast Guard’s capacity building activities in the region as “an alternative to chequebook diplomacy”, and said: “In the face of coercive and antagonistic behaviour from China, the US Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership.”
Schultz criticised Beijing for what he said was its focus on advancing its own interests in the Pacific rather than expanding the interests of partner nations, and said the increased presence of the US Coast Guard would help countries in the region “fully police their sovereign waters”, and assist them in combating narcotics and human trafficking as well as illegal fishing, piracy and terrorism.
Citing the example of Fiery Cross Reef – part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which is claimed by China and several Southeast Asian nations – Schultz said: “China talks about their peaceful conduct, but then we see man-made islands, runways and military build-up on those islands that just don’t match that rhetoric.”
Chinese and American analysts have warned that both sides have ramped up “grey zone” activities – when one nation seeks to make territorial gains against another without resorting to combat – raising the risk of conflict between Washington and Beijing.
But Collin Koh, research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the US and Chinese coastguards also had a history of cooperation in the north Pacific on fishery problems.
“The situation will not escalate to the extent of a clash because of the existing cooperation between the two organisations,” he said.
Koh added that the intent of the intensified approach from the US was “not so much to confront the Chinese head on as to provide broader American security engagement” in the region.
But allocating more assets and manpower to the western and southern Pacific would stretch the capacity of the US Coast Guard to be omnipresent in the South China Sea, Koh added.
In the Philippines, the US commandant on 20 October attended a ceremony on the island of Leyte, marking 75 years since American and Philippine troops fought together to liberate the country from Japanese occupation. The US Coast Guard were among the first American troops to land at Leyte in 1944.
Schultz also met senior Philippine Coast Guard officials, including his counterpart commandant Admiral Elson Hermogino, and visited the crew of the US Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, which has been operating in the Asia-Pacific region since June.
Last week the Stratton took part in the third annual Sama-Sama maritime training activity between the US and Philippine navies, which Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force also joined for the first time this year.
Schultz said the US had a keen interest in helping the Philippine Coast Guard double in size to 30,000 personnel in the next two years.
He said his organisation would also look to boost cooperation with regional partners such as Malaysia. Last week Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah called for the nation to upgrade its ability to prevent other countries from encroaching on its territorial waters.
At least one Chinese Coast Guard vessel spent 70 per cent of the last year patrolling an area in the South China Sea claimed by Malaysia, according to a report issued late last month by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of Washington think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
SOURCE: SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST/PACNEWS
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