If the U.S. Navy’s submarines are known as the “Silent Service,” the U.S. Coast Guard might be called the “Quiet Service.”

Without much fanfare, the Coast Guard pulls stricken sailors out of the sea, goes to the rescue of damaged cargo ships, patrols the high seas to enforce international fishing agreements, and seeks to disrupt drug, gun, and human smuggling.

“Protecting the citizens and visitors to the United States is job one,” said Rear Adm. Charles Ray, who commands Coast Guard cutters and bases from Hawaii to the western Pacific. “That’s our North Star.”

Even so, change has come to Coast Guard operations in the Pacific. One is to work more closely with other coast guards, including that of China with which the U.S. has had often testy political, economic, and military relations.

The Chinese cutter Haixun 31, apparently China’s largest and most capable, was due to make a port call in Honolulu this week after having sailed from Shanghai. This would be the first such visit by a vessel of China’s Maritime Safety Administration, roughly the counterpart of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The crew of Haixun is to train alongside American crews on search and rescue operations, of which the Coast Guard is most likely the most experienced in the world. Some of that training would be ashore, other at sea.

Ray said the Coast Guard also works with the Chinese in the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum to reduce illegal fishing. Last month, a U.S. cutter with a Chinese “shiprider” aboard seized a stateless vessel that was fishing with drift nets in the North Pacific. Drift nets scoop up and kill almost every living thing in the open ocean.

Having shipriders from Pacific Island nations aboard U.S. cutters has made enforcing international agreements increasingly effective, Ray said. Before, a cutter might do six to eight boardings on a 90-day patrol, Ray said. “Now it is 10 times as many.”

The Coast Guard, which is a law enforcement agency, has no legal authority in the waters of other nations. But with a law enforcement official from a Pacific Island nation aboard, a suspect vessel can be boarded and its illegal activity reported to its government. Most frequent violation: fishing without a permit in someone else’s waters.

Under the UN’s Law of the Sea, a country bordering on the sea has an “exclusive economic zone,” or EEZ, generally 200 miles from shore, in which fishing and other economic activity are under its control.

In the Pacific, that usually means a circle in the ocean whose radius is 200 miles. Ships, including warships, can pass through the EEZ but nobody else is supposed to fish or drill for oil there without permission.

A new area for Coast Guard patrols has opened up in the Arctic because, Ray said, “There’s more water where there used to be ice.” The New York Times reported last week that sea ice in the Arctic had fallen to the lowest level on record, covering less than 30 percent of the Arctic Ocean.

The Obama Administration has ordered a “pivot to the Pacific” in which military forces, diplomatic efforts, and economic activity is to be shifted from other parts of the world to the region washed by the western Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

So far, that has not directly affected the Coast Guard. Ray said: “The Coast Guard is a lean organization that does not have the capacity to reallocate significant forces to the Pacific.”

He suggested that Coast Guardsmen are not sitting around looking for things to do and pointed to the cutter Waesche. It recently sailed from California to Hawaii and on to American Samoa. Next the cutter went to Australia to take part in a joint training exercise, then called at a port in the Philippines and sailed north to Japan. Finally, the cutter patrolled in the northern Pacific before returning to home port.

Ray added, however, that, “We have a history of being agile and surging to meet operational requirements.” Coast Guard planes and ships could be assigned to the Pacific from the Atlantic or the Caribbean if they were needed in the Pacific.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth