As China circles the Pacific Islands, the US Coast Guard is already on patrol

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Responding to a request from the Solomon Islands, the first leg of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-day regional diplomatic tour, the US Coast Guard diverted its cutter Myrtle Hazard to patrol the island nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone after a Solomons Police vessel needed repairs.

The US cutter “helped fill the necessary operational presence by conducting maritime surveillance to deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the northern Solomon Islands,” according to a Coast Guard press release.

The Myrtle Hazard was already in the region as part of Operation Blue Pacific, what the Coast Guard calls its “comprehensive multi-mission effort…promoting safety, security, sovereignty and economic prosperity in Oceania. while strengthening relationships.

The Solomon Islands is just one of many Pacific island nations the United States is assisting through Operation Blue Pacific, including, among others, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea. – all stages of the tour of the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs.

China had proposed a broad regional security and economic deal with a number of Pacific island countries, according to documents seen by CNN. The agreement, which touched on a range of areas including education and health, was scheduled for a Monday meeting between Wang and the foreign ministers of 10 Pacific island nations in Fiji.

The meeting ended without the signing of the proposed agreement, with Wang instead noting that the grouping had come up with five “points of consensus”. These areas, largely general statements such as deepening strategic partnership and pursuing common development, did not include security.

The pact, if accepted, would have marked a significant step forward in Beijing’s connection to the region, which is of geostrategic importance in the Indo-Pacific.

Wang Yi defended China’s intentions at the press conference in Fiji on Monday, referring to “questions” about why China “actively supports” Pacific island countries.

“Don’t be too anxious and don’t be too nervous, because the common development and prosperity of China and all other developing countries will only mean greater harmony, greater justice and greater progress of the world. entire,” he said.

Coastguards are part of the Indo-Pacific strategy

Amid the Chinese push, US Coast Guard efforts in the region have not received much attention. But they are substantial and are part of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy released in February.

“We will expand U.S. Coast Guard presence and cooperation in Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific Islands, with a focus on advising, training, deployment, and capacity building” , indicates the action plan of the strategy.

The Coast Guard’s website shows cutters have spent hundreds of days and traveled thousands of miles over the past two years helping Pacific island nations.

One of the key elements of Washington’s influence in the region is “shipping agreements” with 11 Pacific nations, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, according to the United States. Coast Guard Publications. Under these agreements, defense and law enforcement personnel from partner nations board US cutters to enforce their nation’s laws in the exclusive economic zones of island nations.

The relationships the US Coast Guard has forged in the Pacific Islands have deep roots, said Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

This “institutionalized web of defense and security relations” is something Beijing would struggle to replicate, Koh said.

“It lacks the breadth of partnership networks that its geopolitical rivals, including the United States, have cultivated in the region for decades,” Koh said.

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With fish being the primary food source and economic driver for island nations, the Coast Guard says the goal of Operation Blue Pacific is to deter illegal and unregulated fishing.

And it has a big connection with China.

With the largest fishing fleet in the world, “Chinese-flagged fishing vessels roam the world in search of catch and are known to fish in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other countries, especially developing countries. “, according to a 2021 report from the Brookings Institution.

Koh said the extent of Chinese fishing activities does not help Beijing be a positive force in the region.

“Chinese fishing vessels are not necessarily viewed in a benign way – they are large offshore fishing fleets, with larger, better equipped vessels that can outrun, outrun and outrun local fishing boats,” he said. he declares.

The US Coast Guard the “almost perfect” tool

Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said the Coast Guard is “nearly perfect…for building relationships with Pacific island nations” .

Coast Guard cutters pose no threat to ships, associated with rescuing people as much as anything else, Schuster said.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of the Coast Guard to … relationships in the Central and Western Pacific,” he said.

While some observers note that China also has a well-equipped coast guard that could do what the United States is doing in the region, Koh doesn’t see that happening, at least in the short term.

He notes Beijing’s problems in waters closer to home, in places like the South and East China Seas, where disputes over fishing rights and land claims keep the Chinese coast guard busy.

These also call into question China’s credibility as a fair broker, he said, leaving the advantage to the US Coast Guard.

“It’s hard to imagine China having enough political capital to push for something analogous to what the United States is doing right now,” Koh said.

This story has been updated with additional reports.

CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to this report.

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