White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien announced Friday that the U.S. Coast Guard will be beefing up its presence in the Pacific in an effort to curb overfishing and spying that he attributes to China. 

The Coast Guard is conducting a $5 million study looking at basing a new Coast Guard Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter in American Samoa, and adding new ones to the Coast Guard presence in Guam.

“This will be quite an expansion of our U.S. Coast Guard capability in the Western Pacific,” O’Brien said in a conference call with reporters. “This capability will allow us to expand opportunities to partner with like-minded nations in the region.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter William Hart (WPC 1134) passes by Diamond Head on its way to its homeport in Honolulu Aug. 17, 2019. William Hart is the last of the three fast-response cutters (FRCs) to be stationed in Hawaii. Three more are scheduled to be homeported in Guam, increasing the Coast Guard 14th District’s total number of FRCs to six. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Sherri Eng/Released)
The Coast Guard is conducting a $5 million study on how best to beef up its Pacific presence. Sherri Eng/USCG/2019

O’Brien said the new cutters would lessen the burden on the Coast Guard’s Hawaii-based vessels. District 14, headquartered in Honolulu, is responsible for operations across all the Pacific islands.

“It makes their cruises and their deployments a little bit shorter and may get them home a little quicker to their family,” O’Brien said.

Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutters are manned by a crew of 24 and can be deployed for wide-ranging duties including waterways patrols, search and rescue operations, response to environmental disasters and law enforcement operations like fishery regulation and drug interdiction.

Hawaii recently received three of these cutters, Coast Guard District 14 spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Karin Evelyn said in an email.

With District 14’s responsibility extending from the Hawaiian Islands to Guam, American Samoa and activities in Saipan, Singapore and Japan, these additional assets allow the Hawaii based FRC’s to primarily serve the Hawaiian Islands,” she said.

Conflicts over fishing rights in the Pacific have been increasingly leading to disputes. Enforcing laws related to the management of fisheries has been one of the Coast Guard’s primary missions in the Pacific.

“District 14 is home to some of the world’s most abundant fisheries,” said Evelyn. “These fisheries are living marine resources, part of the global food chain, representing food security and are an economic engine for many of the Pacific Island nations.”

A major concern among the U.S. and its allies has been the People’s Maritime Militia — a paramilitary force of military-trained fishermen who occasionally work on behalf of the Chinese Navy, conducting surveillance and other operations. 

Their boats appear no different than any other Chinese fishing boat, but they’ve been known to harass ships from other countries and stake out disputed waters in the South China Sea. Last year Chinese fishing vessels swarmed an island in the Philippines in what was seen as a territorial grab.

There are some indications they may be going well beyond the South China Sea.

O’Brien noted that a suspicious — and aggressive — fleet of Chinese fishing vessels appeared this summer in the Galapagos Islands and clashed with the Ecuadorian Coast Guard. “We’ve seen just this massive 200-plus flotilla of what some are calling ‘the little blue men,’ which are kind of like Putin’s ‘little green men’ that he had in Crimea, and eastern Ukraine.”

“It’s just like a marauding band of fishing trawlers that come through and strip fish and then dump garbage and plastic all over the ocean,” O’Brien said of China’s sea militia. “It’s not a good thing.”

The militias have allegedly harassed conventional military forces as well. Last year the Australian military reported Chinese fishing boats targeting their helicopters with lasers.

O’Brien said there’s no known case yet of the militia operating in U.S. Pacific territories at the moment, but that with their increasing prevalence across the region “it’s something that we’re concerned about.”

Conflict over fisheries is leading countries around the region to take matters into their own hands. In 2018 Vietnam formed a fishing militia of its own to stand up to Chinese vessels and this month the Philippine Navy announced it would begin recruiting and training fishermen to form its own militia.

“That’s why we want to get more Coast Guard presence out there to support our fellow Americans and our friends in the region,” said O’Brien, adding “I think everything that promotes the free and open Indo-Pacific is good for Hawaii.”

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