THE US NAVY has drafted in the US Coast Guard (USCG) to help it constrain China’s aggressive expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea, as tensions continue to rise in the region.
This is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the USCG has been deployed in this capacity. As part of its deployment the USCG will carry out joint exercises with regional partners. Admiral Karl Leo Schultz, commandant of the USCG, told Asia Times in a recent interview that: “There are ongoing discussions, ongoing planning efforts” to support the US Indo-Pacific Command’s (INDO-PACOM) operations in the South China Sea.
He added: “We have partnered up in training [allies] to enhance security in the region.
“We are keenly focused on those likeminded partners, building [a] regional approach.”
On a visit to Manila in October to oversee the Sama-Sama exercises, the Admiral also reiterated that the USCG’s deployment was to reassure strategic partners in the region and provide greater security.
He said: “In the face of coercive and antagonistic behaviour from China in disputed waters, the US Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership at both the professional and personal levels.”
The move is part of the White House’s continuing response to aggressively counter Beijing’s increasing use of coast guard and militia forces to occupy disputed land features and resources in the sea.
In a significant shift, the Pentagon has started to treat China’s paramilitary and coast guard vessels as arms of the People’s Liberation Army and Navy.
In effect this means applying military rules of engagement to aggressively counteract Chinese coast guard and militia forces.
China continues to make systematic efforts to assert its hegemony in the region through its powerful China Coast Guard (CCG), a “white hull” fleet deployed reputedly for purely civilian law enforcement purposes.
The CCG boasts the world’s largest coast guard vessels, notably its “monster” 12,000-ton cutter 3901.
The CCG played a leading role in the recent standoff between China and Vietnam over the Vanguard Bank.
The Vanguard Bank is the westernmost reef in the resource-rich Spratlys and sits within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
However, Beijing says it falls within the “nine-dash line” it uses to claim sovereignty over more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea.
The standoff lasted several months and resulted in China deploying its 2,200-tonne Chinese coastguard ship 37111 and the 12,000-tonne coastguard vessel 3901, which hosts a helicopter and large number of troops.
At the height of the conflict, up to 20-armed vessels square off against each other.
The incident represents the closest the region has come to a war between two rival claimant states in recent history.
In response to the confrontation, the US and Vietnam have stepped up their naval cooperation.
There are rumours that the two nations may upgrade their relations to a “strategic partnership” later this year.
In a sign of the UK’s support for Trump’s South China Sea policy, the Ministry of Defence announced that the new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will make her maiden operational deployment as part of a joint US-Dutch-UK naval mission to the South China Sea in 2021.
Big Lizzie, as she is known, will replace a US carrier on the tour and plans to take around 24 F-35B fighter jets plus helicopters on the deployment.
Half of these will be provided by the US Marine corps, signalling an ever closer military partnership between the US and UK.
Britain’s biggest warship was originally set to sail through the South China Sea as part of a show of strength to China, but this has not been confirmed by the Ministry of Defence.