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Moderator: Good morning and good afternoon everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States. Today, we are pleased to be joined by U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl L. Schultz who will be speaking to us from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from the Admiral, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
Please note that due to the high number of journalists on this call, we ask you to please limit your questions to just one question so others are able to participate.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Admiral Schultz.
Admiral Schultz: Thank you Zia for moderating today’s call and good afternoon – or good morning to some of those on the call today. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you a little bit about the Coast Guard and the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
I’m pleased to be in Oceania, more specifically, actually on the ground in Saipan as we’re doing the call. Oceania is what I define as the Pacific Island nations and territories that span the region between Hawaii and Australia, including those U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas that solidify long standing relationships. Here in Oceania, the Coast Guard is uniquely situated to assist partner nations uphold and assert their own sovereignty, while protecting our national interests. Many Indo-Pacific nations lack the capacity and capability to fully police their sovereign waters, making them vulnerable to narcotics trafficking, human smuggling, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, piracy, and terrorist activities. In the face of coercive and antagonistic behavior, the United States Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership.
Our specialized capabilities and expansive international relationships enable us to build partner-nation capacity and model the rules-based values and behaviors that we want to see in the region. Through engagement, partnership, and presence, we are a maritime bridge between the Department of Defense’s lethality and the State Department’s diplomacy.
My goal for the Coast Guard is to be a partner of choice in the region. So, we tailor our services to the needs of the nation we are supporting. Our long-term commitment to capacity-building spans the range of Coast Guard expertise, including: the transfer of cutters through Excess Defense Articles; multi-national security exercises; bilateral search-and-rescue and law enforcement agreements; the hosting of shipriders on Coast Guard vessels; and the deploying of training teams to share technical expertise and to build proficiency.
We also lend our expertise directly to partners in order to enhance maritime safety, security, and environmental protection through activities such as Aids to Navigation sustainment, fisheries enforcement and environmental protection regulatory activities, counterdrug patrols working with what we call Joint Interagency Task Force-West, which is commanded by a Coast Guard [inaudible] flag officer, and advancing American prosperity by facilitating secure ports and waterways and ensuring the free flow of global maritime commerce.
The U.S. Coast Guard has an enduring role in the Indo-Pacific Region, going back over 150 years, and our commitment today is as strong as ever. In the last year, we have deployed two of our flagships, the National Security Cutters Stratton and Bertholf, in support of the Department of Defense Combatant Commander, the Indo-Pacific Commander. Our enduring role is not to replace or duplicate Department of Defense assets or capabilities, but to employ our unique authorities and capabilities to complement Department of Defense forces. Featuring sophisticated command-and-control systems, these National Security Cutters deploy globally to strengthen maritime governance, advance national collection requirements, and confront threats to the United States of America.
We also demonstrate our enduring commitment to the region by homeporting three of our new assets, the Fast Response Cutter, in Guam in the next two to three years. We broke ground yesterday in Guam on what we call the Maintenance Support Building and that building will support these assets operating in the Oceania region.
The Coast Guard enjoys a truly great relationship with our Territorial and Federal partners in the region, which we reinforced through the dedication of this building, honoring a local hero, a former governor, as a matter of fact the first non-military governor in Guam.
The addition of the Fast Response Cutters will significantly increase Coast Guard presence throughout the region. Our increased capability and capacity will allow for more frequent and longer patrols to protect the Exclusive Economic Zone from illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing and the threats that those activities bring, as well as increasing drug trafficking threats to the region.
My vision for the Coast Guard is to expand our permanent presence and effectiveness in the region through expeditionary capability. Which is why we are doubling down in Oceania. In the next month, we will be deploying Coast Guard assets in a new operating concept to strengthen the community of island nations through Operation AIGA, that’s Samoan for ‘family.’ An initial 30-day deployment of multi-mission cutters, including a 225-foot buoy tender and one of these brand-new Fast Response Cutters, will provide specialized capability to our partners in the region. With this small footprint, we will deliver variety and convenience to their doorstep, tailored to the needs of each island nation.
In summary, the Coast Guard has an enduring and specialized role in this region, and we are proud to be operating with our Pacific partners to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific where individual sovereignty is protected.
I look forward to your questions and am appreciative of the dialogue today. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. If we can please start with Mackenzie Smith from RNZ Pacific in Auckland.
Question: Hi. Thanks for your time, Admiral. I have two questions. The first you might not be able to answer. Tonga is investigating a Turkish-flagged ship which allegedly severed an undersea internet cable in January. So I’m wondering if the Coast Guard is aware of this incident or any activities of this kind by Turkey.
The other is the North Korean ship detained in American Samoa. I’m wondering how long that’s expected to stay there and if there’s any plans to move it. Thank you.
Admiral Schultz: I appreciate the questions. The first question, the Tonga question, I am unfamiliar with that.
In terms of the ship in American Samoa, that is a situation that I am familiar with. The Coast Guard was involved with international partners there, with U.S. interests in that ship, the Wise Honest. And we have some of what we call our Deployable Specialized Forces, folks in American Samoa, when that ship arrived to help with the security aspects of that. We’ve since walked back that participation. But that activity, in terms of how long the vessel will stay there, I don’t know. The vessel is being held there subject to seizure and that’s not something — that’s probably more in the purview of the Department of Justice than me to speak on.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we have Chiara Zambrano from ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation in Manila, Philippines.
Question: Good morning, Admiral. As you know, in the South China Sea, the gray ships of the various navies here have essentially been paralyzed by the dominant presence of the white ship strategy employed by the Chinese Coast Guard. Now that you’ve said that you will be making more frequent and longer patrols in your concerned EEZs, we’d like to know concretely in what ways will the U.S. Coast Guard presence be felt in terms of paralleling or equaling or countering the dominant Chinese Coast Guard presence in these waters?
Admiral Schultz: I appreciate the question. The way the Coast Guard is supporting regional operations is we, at the request of the Indo-Pacific Commander under the Department of Defense, we have surged, like I said, one National Security Cutter deployed from about January until mid-June. That was the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf. We have a National Security Cutter, the Stratton, in the region today. We provide those forces to the Pacific Fleet Commander who works under the Indo-Pacific Regional Commander. Those cutters are under the Navy’s tactical control and are applied to the regional threats as best deemed necessary by the operational commander.
Our ships in the region — the Bertholf was involved in some sanctions work in its early time in the region against the DPRK. They did participate alongside a Navy ship in the Taiwan Straits transit. The Stratton will be doing some work in the Oceania region. Bertholf, the first ship, did some joint search and rescue exercises alongside the Philippines Navy.
So it’s a range of operational activities. Again, our presence there is to model maritime governance. I think when you think about the United States Coast Guard, our iconic racing stripe that defines our white ships, you see that branding replicated all over the world, including the Chinese Coast Guard. What we think we bring is appropriate behavior. Following international protocol and following a free and open rule-based mindset, and we’re hoping the Coast Guard presence here will reinforce that as an important, national U.S. interest and really how the international norms should be established and reinforced.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we have Kathrin Hille from the Financial Times based in Taipei.
Question: Thank you. Admiral, I wanted to ask a question about the South China Sea in a little bit more concrete terms. We have had a standoff going on around Vanguard Bank involving Chinese Coast Guard ships. Can you tell us whether the U.S. Coast Guard believes that the activities of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels, or part of them, are occurring inside Vietnam’s EEZ and whether the U.S. Coast Guard has a role or intends to, or plans to, have a role in countering this coercive behavior? Thank you.
Admiral Schultz: I appreciate the question. I really need to defer that to the Commander of the 7th Fleet and Indo-Pacific Commander. We are providing forces at the Department of Defense’s request to operate in the theater. I am not involved in the tactical operations of those platforms once in theater.
What we have done is we’ve transferred some former High Endurance Cutters, the 378-foot Hamilton Class Cutters to the region. We’ve transferred cutters to the Philippines, transferred recently to Sri Lanka, we’ve transferred them to Vietnam. Those are capabilities that the host nation should be able to develop and use to project their own sovereign interests in the region.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we have Lan Vu from Pho Bolsa TV. Lan, are you there? If not, can we please go ahead and go to Brad Lendon from CNN next.
Question: In the announcement for this teleconference, it mentioned you would talk about Chinese expansion into American territory. I wonder if you could give some more detail on what that Chinese expansion into American territory is.
Admiral Schultz: I think I would say being here in the region, in Guam, in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, had a meeting here in the recent day or so with the U.S. Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia — there are clear indicators that the Chinese are operating in the region. If you think outside the second [inaudible] flying near places like Yap, we’re seeing additional presence. I think that is a factual finding, and again, the Coast Guard, we are a domestic-based organization with global reach and global capabilities, but there’s a capacity limit in that.
So we have been here in the Pacific, we work on a very local level. One of my key notes in my visit here was what we call a sector, a sector command in Guam. They do search and rescue, environmental protection, some enforcement of the IUU fishing we talked about earlier. They are our eyes on the ground, our presence on the ground, and sitting on the ground in Saipan today, you can see clear indicators of influence in the region. Financial interests in the region.
I think what we’re looking at, with some of the island nations, the partners, is to be a partner of choice, to offer the exchange of capabilities and professional exchanges with the regional partners.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we’ll go to Duy Linh Hang from Tuoi Tre Newspaper. Okay. If not, please open the phone line for Dong Hyun Kim from Voice of America.
Question: The Coast Guard is also engaging in North Korea’s illegal ship-to-ship transfer issue. I have a question regarding the matter. The illegal vessels, especially those trading with North Korea, has been using AIS signal off tactics to break off their navigational [inaudible].
How is the Coast Guard counteracting such illegal activity? And some say these are used for ship-to-ship transfers in international waters. But some experts point out while these AIS signals are off, these ships directly enter North Korean ports for trade. Does the Coast Guard have any concerns about the possibility of AIS signal off vessels directly entering North Koran sea ports for illegal transactions?
Admiral Schultz: Regarding the question about AIS and AIS carriage, AIS display, I don’t have the specifics. I believe, I’ve heard reporting of vessels operating to mask their location with AIS secured. That is in violation of an international agreement based on the size of ships and the locations. That said, I think those specifics are better deferred to probably the 7th Fleet, the Indo-Pacific Commander. But what I mentioned earlier and I’ll reaffirm is our National Security Cutters have been involved in that sanctions enforcement effort against the DPRK here in recent months.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next if we can go to Dzirhan Mahadzir from USNI News [in Kuala Lumpur].
Question: Thank you, Admiral. I would like to ask, in the past, the U.S. Coast Guard used to be part of the Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training Exercise, but that has since been discontinued. With the added presence of Coast Guard ships, do we see a return of them to such exercises?
Admiral Schultz: Let me use for an example — you look at the Rim of the Pacific, RIMPAC, which is one of the largest exercises on an annual basis. The Coast Guard has been a continued participant in RIMPAC. We’ve participated with a National Security Cutter here last year. There was a year or so when we took a gap and we sent some of what we call our Deployable Specialized Force folks to participate. I anticipate here in the upcoming RIMPAC we will again be participating with a National Security Cutter.
So we are committed to the international exercises, the partnerships, the collaboration, the signaling of the shared commitment to free and open oceans, specifically a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. If we can next go to Juan Carlo Gotinga from Rappler News.
Question: Hi. Good morning, Admiral. Thank you for taking this question. China has increased its presence, its naval presence in the South China Sea and the U.S. has been very clear about its emphasis on freedom of navigation and overflight in the area. So my question is, in what concrete ways can the U.S. Coast Guard help push that objective of the U.S.? And also, are there any future plans that are imminent with other claimant states in the South China Sea who also push forward their right to freedom of navigation and oversight?
Admiral Schultz: Let me walk it from the second question first. In terms of other claimants in the region, we are collaborating, working very diligently with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese filled out their Coast Guard multi-fold. I’ve hosted Vietnamese Coast Guard leadership recently. Obviously, they have to work on a very careful relationship there in the region, being neighbors to China. We’ve worked with the Malaysians, the Indonesians, helping them build out their capacity. With the Philippines. I mentioned in response to one of the earlier questions, we’ve transferred former High Endurance cutters through what we call the U.S. Excess Defense Article Program. For the Sri Lankans, to the Philippines, to the Vietnamese. So those are very capable ships. I think that’s a key place where we’re talking about other claimants in the South China Sea.
For us here, again, our amped-up level of participation supporting the Indo-Pacific Commander, showing that behavior, the model, maritime governance that supports rules-based order, free and open access to the sea lines of communication. We think a Coast Guard contribution to that is important.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we’ll go to Danh Le Thanh from Zing News. If we’re not able to connect with Danh, can we go ahead and try one more time, because he’s still on the line, with Lan Vu from Pho Bolsa.
Question: Thank you. My question is also regarding the situation in Vanguard Bank. The U.S. State Department already expressed their concerns about that situation recently. But if the situation escalates in the next few days or weeks, the U.S. will take any appropriate actions regarding that? Thank you.
Admiral Schultz: I’m going to defer that question I think to the State Department, to our regional colleagues. That’s an operational, tactical sort of current operations question that as a force provider to the region, as a partner in building capacity in the region, that’s not really in my lane to answer. I apologize for that.
Moderator: Understood, Admiral. Thank you. Next if we could go to Peifen Chou from Up Media [in Taiwan].
Question: Thank you. My question is that U.S. Coast Guard ship [inaudible] crossed Taiwan Straits earlier this year and in addition to practicing the light of freedom of navigation, does U.S. CG discuss with the Taiwan government about the cooperation in [inaudible] in the South China Sea?
Admiral Schultz: I did not copy the latter part of that question. I apologize. I understood the part about the Coast Guard did participate in a Taiwan Strait transit. That is a true statement, alongside a Navy combatant. But I did not understand the second part of the question.
Moderator: I believe it was if the U.S. Coast Guard is coordinating and cooperating with the Taiwan government.
Admiral Schultz: We take our lead in the region here working under the Indo-Pacific Commander in terms of cooperation and collaboration with the Taiwan government. I’m going to leave that specific answer to the State Department and the regional commander on that.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Admiral. Next we’ll go to Meaghan Tobin from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
Question: Hi, thanks very much Admiral. Recently, the Acting Secretary of Defense has made some comments about increasing the agility of U.S. military and law enforcement forces in the Pacific. And some have interpreted that to mean increased military bases. But I’m curious how you see the Coast Guard fitting into new ways of military, law enforcement activities, particularly around the U.S. Pacific territories.
Admiral Schultz: Sure. I think in the latter part of your question about the U.S. Pacific territories, I think our intention here would be to offer ourselves as a partner of choice to the Pacific Island nations. We have the capability to help them protect their sovereign interests. You look at the GDP, the gross domestic product of many of these island nations, they’re derived from the sea. When you look at foreign encroachment on their fishing, that is a concern. When you look at economic investment. We don’t have to look too far around the world to see places where economic investment has turned into ownership of ports and things like that.
So I believe the Coast Guard will continue to contribute to some degree to the conversations we’ve had in large part about the South China Sea, East China Sea, but I think really a sweet spot for us would be operating at a partner nation level. We intend to send a buoy tender. It’s a 225-foot ship with a patrol boat down to American Samoa in the coming weeks here for an extended patrol. It’s a little bit of a proof of concept. I anticipate that mother ship type operation with some patrol boats, maybe trying to lash up with Australian partners and New Zealand partners in the region, Japanese partners, really is that international face that offers an alternative to other actors in the region.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. We’re just about running out of time. We’ll try to sneak in one or two more. I’ll try one more time for Duy Linh Hang from Tuoi Tre Newspaper [in Vietnam]. Are you there?
Question: Yes, I’m speaking.
Moderator: Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. Good morning, Admiral. There are some skeptical opinions that the U.S. may not have an effective strategy to deal with China’s region strategy. What do you think about it? And also, recent China aggressive activity, especially in South China Sea. How will the U.S. respond to this? With a [inaudible] hearing or whatever? Thank you.
Admiral Schultz: Zia, can you help me maybe with that question? It was a little bit broken and —
Moderator: Indeed. He was asking for U.S. strategy to counter China in the South China Sea, and that there is skepticism about the U.S. strategy. And just recent aggressive actions by the Chinese and how the U.S. —
Question: The region strategy of China.
Admiral Schultz: I would say in terms of the strategic approach there, I think obviously we’re in a national strategy, security strategy here in the nation, a national defense strategy that’s focused on competing global powers. As the Coast Guard Commandant Service Chief, as I look across the globe, the maritime globe, the commons. The Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, we are absolutely in support of free and open sea lines of communication in international waters. We’re open to resolving disputed territorial claims in the appropriate international court venues.
So, the strategy I think is to show that as a nation, the United States government — in a region of the world that’s critically important to the free movement of commerce. When you look at the volume of economic activity that fuels prosperity in the region, that happens in the Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea, East China Sea region, that’s critically important to U.S. interests and to international interests.
Again, the Coast Guard contribution, as I said, we have a certain recognized global demand, or global brand that I think us participating in the region from partnership capacity building, to the higher-end, us steaming with our Navy colleagues, is all important to signal to regional actors that we are serious, we are committed to that free and open, rule-based values and behaviors in the Indo-Pacific.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. If we can, we’ll just do one last question which is, we’ll go to Chiara Zambrano from ABS-CBN Broadcasting.
Question: Hi, Admiral. I’d just like to go back a bit in relation to my previous question, and I think it’s also related to the one that you just answered. Because essentially China Coast Guard presence has been a presence of domination, a game of numbers and physical assertion of its presence. How do you see the work, the strategy that you mentioned of you being a model — using far less vessels in the area — a model of good behavior seeing that China hasn’t even been following international court decisions? And how do you see your strategy being more effective, as opposed to perhaps going toe-to-toe and playing by the numbers game in the South China Sea?
Admiral Schultz: I think what we would champion is transparent engagement. I think when you – the Chinese Coast Guard is grossly manifested, increased its number of ships. There’s the PLA Navy, Central government Navy. There’s the Chinese Coast Guard — used to be under civilian authority, it is now through the People’s Military Police, a direct report to the CCP government. You look at the Maritime Militia. I think we are seeing behaviors out of the Chinese Coast Guard, out of the Maritime Militia, that are not consistent with the rule-based order.
I think the Coast Guard voice, the U.S. Navy voice, allied partners, regional partners, neighbors, I think there needs to be an international push-back to say you know, we reject the types of behaviors, the antagonistic, aggressive behaviors that are not consistent with the rule-based order.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Admiral. With that, we will conclude today’s call. I apologize if we were not able to get to your question. We tried to get to as many as we could.
I want to thank U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz, and I also want to thank all of our callers for participating.