U. S diplomacy in the South Pacific is getting a boost from the regional deployment of the Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane, which has started a years-long involvement in fisheries and anti-narcotics enforcement in conjunction with Pacific island countries.

The home port of Harriet Lane, one of a class of 13 U.S Coast Guard vessels that can carry out so-called medium range operations lasting up to three months, changed to Pearl Harbour from Portsmouth, Virginia in December as part of recent U.S government commitments to deepen relations with Pacific island countries.

The 270 foot cutter’s ongoing inaugural patrol in the South Pacific that began in January has so far taken it to American Samoa, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Commander Nicole Tesoniero said to date the patrol has carried out 28 vessel boardings under shiprider agreements with Pacific island countries – already equal to more than a third of the boardings carried out in a year by the six fast-response Coast Guard cutters based in Hawaii and Guam.

“What we’re looking at with Harriet Lane, is starting to get some of those regions that have been more difficult for the Coast Guard to reach,” she told BenarNews in an interview. “And this first patrol has been a great example of that.”

Harriet Lane’s deployment to the Pacific was one of the commitments from last year’s summit between U.S President Joe Biden and the leaders of Pacific island countries. The U.S. has sought greater involvement in the Pacific in response to archrival China’s inroads with island nations, such as its secretive security cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands, signed in 2022.

Many Pacific island countries rely on help from Australia, New Zealand and the U.S to police their vast exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles from land, to deter illegal fishing and ensure licensed fishing fleets are following the rules.

The island countries are also part of a drug-trafficking highway for international crime gangs that supply narcotics from Asia and South America to markets in New Zealand and Australia.

Bianca Simeon, an inspector in the maritime wing of Vanuatu’s police force, said Harriet Lane’s visit to Vanuatu last month was significant and beneficial.

The last time the country had patrolled its fisheries was in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and problems with its single patrol boat. The RVS Takuare, donated by Australia in mid-2021, is now in Australia for repairs to a reported engine defect.

Vanuatu officials who went on patrol with Harriet Lane found violations in half of the dozen foreign fishing vessels they boarded, including fish catches in their coolers that were not recorded in their logs, lack of proper records for crew transfers between ships and captains fishing under licenses not issued to them.

“Based on our experience during the patrol with Harriet Lane, I believe there has been significant illegal fishing activity in our waters,” Simeon told BenarNews.

“The patrol with Harriet was only for six days and this is a short time but we managed to find six vessels who were breaking our law,” she said. “I can definitely say there are fishing boats out there who are doing the same but get away with it.”

Vanuatu expects at least one more patrol with Harriet Lane this year and would likely conduct a joint patrol if the RVS Takuare becomes available, Simeon said.

The U.S has shiprider agreements with 12 Pacific island countries that mean law enforcement officers from those nations can board U.S. vessels and deputise them to assist in enforcing regulations in their waters.

The agreements are not explicitly aimed at China. However, U.S diplomats and defence officials have described them as a form of military diplomacy known as theatre security cooperation that can foster political relations in the region, enhance security and counter detrimental outside influences.

Many of the fishing vessels boarded in the Pacific with Harriet Lane’s assistance are flagged to China, which reflects it has the world’s largest commercial fishing fleet numbering more than half a million vessels.

Tesoniero said enhanced shiprider agreements that allow U.S vessels to police another country’s exclusive economic zone without an official from the country on board could increase the effectiveness of Harriet Lane’s South Pacific patrols.

The U.S Coast Guard signed an enhanced shiprider agreement with Palau last year and with the Federated States of Micronesia the previous year. Both those countries in the western Pacific give the U.S military access to their vast ocean territories in exchange for economic assistance and the right for their citizens to live and work in the U.S.

“I do think there is considerable benefit to the enhanced shiprider agreements and it’s really just because of the ability to start that monitoring and enforcement action immediately upon entering the EEZ,” Tesoniero said. “I think it increases the scope of what you can accomplish.”

Harriet Lane’s Pearl Harbour berth lasts until 2027 under an agreement with the U.S Navy. Tesoniero said its Pacific patrols also afford an opportunity to understand what its future home port options could be.