The U.S. Coast Guard is in a pinch. Pentagon leaders need it to exercise a unique mission in the Pacific Ocean to counter a rising China, but those same officials can’t foot the growing bill, according to Coast Guard commanders.
As the only military service under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard has a unique set of capabilities that come in handy for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, especially with an overtasked U.S. Navy.
To take the burden off the Navy, new Coast Guard cutters are deploying to the Asia-Pacific region, sailing through contested waterways and making port visits at geostrategic locations like Hong Kong.
“We chose those port of calls very intentionally,” Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, the Coast Guard’s commander for the Pacific area, said during an Indo-Pacific strategy panel at the Sea-Air-Space conference on May 6.
The Coast Guard is also deploying personnel to Singapore and Vietnam, where it’s engaging with local counterparts to help train them to police the region’s waters.
“The challenge is the Coast Guard budget because the budget is either defense or nondefense, and we sit in that nondefense pot of money,” Fagan said.
Because of budget control caps, the Coast Guard has seen an erosion in buying power since 2012, according to Fagan. “As we’ve embarked on the capitalization and recapitalization of the new assets, our ability then to do the other things has gotten squeezed to a point where it’s really becoming untenable,” she said.
The Coast Guard receives funding support from the Defense Department, but that’s capped at about $340 million annually, said Fagan, and the cost of what the Coast Guard offers far outstrips what the Pentagon pays for.
“We probably contribute closer to $1 billion in effort a year, directly to DoD,” she added. “I share that with you because they say they want more Coast Guard ... forward-deployed in Oceania.”
The Coast Guard cutter Bertholf is acting as a sort of a trial balloon for the service’s new Pacific focus. The national security cutter transgressed the Taiwan Strait in March, reinforcing the Pentagon’s position that the U.S. has the right to sail through all international waterways.
Enforcing freedom of navigation, as well as the territorial integrity of smaller Asian nations, has been a key part of the U.S. military’s effort to rebuff China as it militarizes the South China Sea.
“Our authorities and access are nicely designed and attuned to help many of the small nations in the region, particularly in Oceania, to enforce their own [economic exclusion zones] and project their own presence into the region," Fagan said.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has been deepening its ties with island nations in Oceania by tackling drug trafficking, illegal fishing, rising ocean levels and debt traps that threaten those nations’ respective sovereign interests, the head of the command, Adm. Philip Davidson, told the Senate in February.
“The U.S. Coast Guard has never been more relevant,” Fagan said. “The demand signal for what we bring into this region has never been higher. In fact, at a recent meeting with Adm. Davidson, he said: ‘I need more Coast Guard.’
“Well, I need more Coast Guard, too.”
In April, the Bertholf visited Hong Kong, the first time a U.S. Coast Guard vessel has moored in the city in 17 years. The ship has also helped enforce sanctions on North Korea in the East China Sea.
The Coast Guard is also working to encourage the Chinese government through memorandums of understanding and partnerships to intercept illegal fishermen, according to Fagan. But historically Chinese military vessels have been part of the problem.
Chinese Coast Guard vessels “harass and intimidate" Filipino fishing vessels near Scarborough Reef and “frequently enter the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands, which the United States recognizes as being under the administrative control of the Japanese,” Davidson said in February.
“Additionally, while Beijing mostly implements United Nations Security Council resolutions against North Korea, in a number of cases, illicit ship-to-ship transfers continue to occur within Chinese territorial waters,” he added.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a role to play in countering those activities and pushing back against Chinese militarization in the region, but it needs more support to do so, according to its regional commander.
“That’s kind of where our conversation is right now," Fagan said. "With some reliable funding and resourcing ... the right small package of people with authorities and access ... might be able to provide a very useful counter to some of the activity we see from China in Oceania.”