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Moderator: Good day from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am the Hub Director, Zia Syed, and I want to thank you all for joining this briefing.
Today we are pleased to be joined from Alameda, California by U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Michael F. McAllister, who is the Commander of the Pacific Area and Commander of the Coast Guard Defense Force West. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from the vice admiral. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30-35 minutes. Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Admiral McAllister.
VADM McAllister: All right. Well, good morning or good evening, depending on your location. And thank you, Zia, for setting up this call. I really do appreciate the opportunity to be here today, and I look forward to responding to your questions regarding U.S. Coast Guard operations in the Western Pacific.
So, it was two months ago that I had the privilege of assuming the duties of the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. And in that role, I am responsible for all Coast Guard operations in the Pacific, from the North Pole to the South Pole, and from the West Coast of North and South America to the Indian Ocean.
As an opening, I wanted to share with you some of my priorities for Coast Guard operations in the Pacific Region; discuss maybe a little bit more, in a little bit greater detail, how the Coast Guard Cutter Munro’s current deployment fits into those priorities; and provide you an update on Coast Guard operations in Oceania, since many of you participated in a Hub Call with our commandant, Admiral Schultz, in July. And so, I’ll give you a little bit of an update there.
So, let me start with Coast Guard missions and priorities. And I’ll start off by saying the United States is certainly a Pacific nation. The U.S. Coast Guard has more than 150 years of service in the Pacific region. We’re very proud of that. We’ve been protecting U.S. sovereign interests in the region, particularly including our territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and American Samoa, which really accounts for millions of square miles of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. And we provide direct support to the COFA States of Palau, FSM, Republic of Marshall Islands.
But more broadly, we view this as an extremely important region. Half the world’s commerce and half the world’s population are in the Indo-Pacific; and as leaders in maritime safety and security, we believe we have a role to play. And our chief role is to try to contribute to regional stability and security. So, we build and leverage partnerships to enhance the capability and capacity of partner nations to carry out missions that contribute to the common good, things like search-and-rescue, marine environmental protection, enforcing fisheries laws and treaties, addressing human smuggling, counterdrug, counterterrorism, disaster response, and others. And particularly in these mission areas, it’s important to promote rules-based order, by which I mean adherence to international rules and norms.
So, you may ask: Why the Coast Guard? And we believe we have some unique Coast Guard attributes that allow us to do this type of work effectively. First, we are a military service of the United States. We can integrate seamlessly into defense operations alongside the U.S. Navy and other U.S. military services, and we are fully interoperable with U.S. allies. But we also have law enforcement and regulatory roles which align well with both navies and coast guards in the Pacific region, and our missions match the needs of Indo-Pacific nations. And perhaps most importantly, we believe that we are able to model the behaviors that we and our partners want to see in the region.
Let me talk a little bit about the Coast Guard Cutter Munro deployment, and there have been a few press releases on the subject, one in May and one in July. She is currently deployed under the Commander of the 7th Fleet. She is engaging in professional exchanges and capacity-building with partner nations, as two recent examples, both of which I believe we issued press releases for. We did some joint patrols, a search-and-rescue exercise, and small boat operations with the Japan Coast Guard, and just recently with the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine fisheries agency we did a joint patrol, we did exercises in our ability to enforce Exclusive Economic Zones and so forth.
Now, while the Munro is deployed, she conducts operations as directed by the 7th Fleet. And so she’s part of that integrated naval force that we articulate in our U.S. tri-service strategy. She is ready for crisis or conflict, but I would offer she is not a duplication or replication of United States Navy capability. We do unique engagements with navies, coast guards, and maritime security agents throughout the region.
Also, I offered to provide an update since the Commandant’s announcement in late July which established Coast Guard Forces Micronesia. And he was there to commission three new fast response cutters, and in our minds, that demonstrates enduring commitment to and presence in the region. When added to three FRCs and other new cutters in Honolulu as well, this expanded our presence in Oceania significantly.
Since that time, we launched our most recent wave of what we call Operation Blue Pacific. And this is a multi-mission, multi-location effort in coordination with key partners amongst Pacific Island nations, to include things such as using various Coast Guard cutters we detect, deter, suppress IUUF, which is illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing; we carry that out oftentimes through shiprider agreements; we counter transnational shipment of illegal narcotics. We conduct port security assessments; and we provide what we call maritime domain awareness through long-range aircraft sorties. And we do that in support of Pacific Island nations that are especially [vulnerable] to the challenges of climate change. And some lack capacity or capability to police their own sovereign waters and which makes them so vulnerable, particularly to illegal fishing.
And I’ll give you just one example from this current operation which demonstrates our partnerships. The Australians have a very good patrol boat program, working with numerous Pacific Island nations, and those patrol boats from time to time need to come out of service for heavy maintenance. On this current patrol, as an example, and I won’t say exactly where, but we have offered to bring shipriders aboard and patrol sovereign waters of another nation while their patrol boat was out of service for maintenance. To me, this is how good partners work together for security.
We have 11 different memorandums of agreement throughout Oceania to facilitate this type of cooperation and suppress illicit maritime activity and ultimately strengthen maritime security.
So, just to close out my introduction, and then I look forward to your questions, amongst our highest priority goals, we want to be the partner of choice for coast guards around the world, but particularly in this important region. And based on how much the Coast Guard is in demand, my personal assessment is that we are on the right track. We emphasize human-to-human interaction, we apply people to problem sets, and we build enduring relationships, and we do that in pursuit of bi- and multi-lateral agreements that build critical partnerships for the common good.
So let me stop there and invite some questions from those participating here.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Our first question will go to Christopher Woody from Business Insider. Christopher, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, Admiral. Thanks for your time today. Christopher Woody with Business Insider in Washington, D.C. I wanted to follow up on what you said about not duplicating Navy capabilities. Can you elaborate on what it is Coast Guard personnel and assets in the Western Pacific can do that the Navy can’t do or isn’t able to do, and talk about how those capabilities align with what partner nations are looking for?
VADM McAllister: I’d be happy to. So, Coast Guard forces provide expertise not only in military skills but in other skills such as search-and-rescue, law enforcement, fisheries enforcement, marine environmental response, humanitarian assistance, disaster response. And frankly, those are different missions than the U.S. Navy or the military services here in the United States deal with.
The U.S. Coast Guard is often the model for other coast guards to follow. A lot of regional naval forces look like our Coast Guard, meaning they do not only do defense activities, but they do civil law enforcement activities. And if you’ve ever seen pictures of various coast guard and maritime security agency vessels in the area, they all have that familiar stripe which is very similar to the Coast Guard stripe that you’ll find on any Coast Guard cutter around the world.
And so, at the end of the day, we try to model a type of behavior that keeps commerce open, peacefully resolves disputes, protects valuable resources, and counters illicit activities that impact all. We are complementary to U.S. Navy defense-oriented capability, not redundant.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Mar-Vic Kagurangan from Pacific Island Times in Guam. Mar-Vic, please, go ahead.
Question: Okay, thank you. I would like to ask a question about the Federated States of Micronesia. Earlier this year, the Micronesian president offered to accommodate China’s commerce in Asia Pacific, basically to make FSM a trans-shipment hub in the region. And President Panuelo was proposing a partnership with Beijing for China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Given that China is a major element that the U.S. is worried about, does this looming partnership raise any concern with you?
VADM McAllister: I would offer that we attempt to be the security partner of choice for nations in the Pacific region. We do that by upholding a rules-based order and following international norms. I understand that Pacific Island nations have choices that they need to make. At the end of the day, we remain open for partnerships. And when you’re talking about things like search-and-rescue and illegal fisheries or trying to counter illegal fisheries, those are missions that have a common good no matter what choices you make in terms of your economic activities or alignments. And we’re willing to continue to press those important partnerships forward to advance maritime safety and security even in those conditions.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, if we could please go to Lawrence Chung from South China Morning Post [in Taiwan]. Lawrence, if you’re there, please, go ahead.
Question: Morning, thank you. My question will be: Some news reports said that the coast guard of Taiwan and United States had a joint exercise last Monday, east of Taiwan. Could you confirm this? And if not, will the two sides hold joint exercise in the future given that they have signed agreement for cooperation?
Also, some Japanese congressmen have suggested that the coast guards from Japan, the United State, and Taiwan can cooperate and hold joint drills together. Would that be possible? Thank you.
VADM McAllister: Well, the United States Coast Guard works very closely with allies and partners throughout the Pacific to strengthen coast guard-to-coast guard communication, enhanced interoperability in missions like emergency response, combatting criminal activity at sea. And so, this memorandum of understanding that we have on coast guard cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan establishes a mechanism to achieve those goals. But as it concerns specific, ongoing U.S. operations with Taiwan, I don’t have any specific details to provide at this time.
With regard to your question on a potential kind of trilateral relationship between Japan, Taiwan, and the United States, as I stated before, we’re interested in growing our relationships and partnerships, particularly towards a common good. I think that’s a question best geared for ministries of state, departments of state, to lay the groundwork for enhanced trilateral relationships, and then we in the Coast Guard are happy to carry those out.
Moderator: Next, then, if we could go to Brad Lendon from CNN in Hong Kong.
Question: Good morning, Admiral. My question pertains to recent Chinese actions to put new reporting requirements on ships going through what China claims is territorial waters. How does the U.S. Coast Guard look at this?
And along with that, what sort of cooperation do you have with the Chinese Coast Guard in any interactions that may come up?
VADM McAllister: So, let me start with the new reporting requirements. As you all know, the South China Sea is really a maritime superhighway, and coast guard-to-coast guard cooperation really is critical in that region for building good maritime governance. And as I had mentioned in my opening, we’re definitely seeing increased interest in partnering with the United States Coast Guard on maritime safety and security capacity development.
I would offer the new reporting requirements for ships on innocent passage to the South China Sea, certainly based on the reporting, seems to run directly counter to international agreements and norms. If our reading is correct, these are very concerning, and that’s because they begin to build foundations for instability and potential conflicts if those are enforced.
And so, what does the Coast Guard do about that? As I alluded to earlier, we work with partners across the region. In fact, I would submit that we’re in the region really in part to support key partners that are growing increasingly concerned over China’s aggressive and sometimes coercive actions, and our partners’ concerns with their lack of capability or capacity to adequately respond to those actions.
With respect to your question on cooperation with China, we do cooperate with China on areas of mutual interest between the U.S. and China; not a whole lot of cooperative activity in the South China Sea in particular; however, we do continue to cooperate in the North Pacific, specifically as it relates to high seas fishing, the enforcement of various treaties and conventions that both the U.S. and China are signatories to. And we have enjoyed that relationship for a number of decades now, and it has been successful. We have largely eliminated the use of high seas drift nets, as an example, on the high seas, which had a very significant impact on a lot of migratory fish species.
And so, we remain willing to continue to cooperate and communicate where our interests align. But where our missions or interests don’t align, we’re going to make note of those positions and provide what we think is a better model of behavior.
Moderator: Thank you. We will need to wrap up the call soon, but if you would like to try to ask a question, you can jump in the queue. Next, if we could go to Dzirhan Mahadzir from USNI News in Malaysia. Dzirhan, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you, Admiral. Recently, the Cutter Munro had an exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Please tell us a little about the context of the relationship between the U.S. Coast Guard and the JMSDF. Thank you.
VADM McAllister: Yes. Well, we’ve had a number of engagements with both the Japan Coast Guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force, and the most recent engagement was one of, I would say, cooperative patrolling coincident to other operations. So, we find that the Japanese are amongst our most valued partnerships, and that’s both from a maritime perspective through the Maritime Defense Force and from missions that align really well with the Coast Guard to the Japan Coast Guard. And in fact, I mentioned the North Pacific Guard, which is kind of a high seas fisheries enforcement. We get great support from the Japanese in that operation as well, both on the high seas and for logistics capability. And so, we just find that Japan is a very mature, very responsible, desired partner across all of our mission sets.
Moderator: Thank you. If we could next go to Raissa Robles from South China Morning Post. Raissa [in Manila], if you’re there, please, go ahead.
Question: Yes, good morning, Vice Admiral. I’d like to ask you what was the aim of the recent exercises with the Philippine Coast Guard, and was there a message intended to convey by holding it near Scarborough Shoal? And recently, a Chinese vessel had fired flares after a Philippine vessel had asked it to state its reasons for being inside the Philippine EEZ. What is the meaning of firing flares in response to another ship’s radio challenge? Thank you.
VADM McAllister: So, I think I missed an important part of your question. Could I ask you to repeat your questions for me?
Question: Okay. What was the aim of the recent exercises with the Philippine Coast Guard, and was there a message intended to convey by holding it near Scarborough Shoal? And recently, a Chinese vessel had fired flares after a Philippine vessel had asked it to state its reasons for being inside the Philippine EEZ. In terms of behavior of ships at sea, what is the meaning of firing flares in response to another ship’s radio challenge?
VADM McAllister: Okay, so two great questions. Let me start with the recent exercises both of the Philippines Coast Guard and with the fisheries agency, and I’ll focus mostly on the coast guard. That’s one of our key partners. And the Philippine Coast Guard is growing, or at least has designs to grow rapidly. I believe they’re at about 15,000 people right now and have plans to grow to greater than 30,000 members. The recent exercises included search-and-rescue, fisheries enforcement, and what we call maritime domain awareness, which is just being able to identify activities going on in your sovereign waters, with the idea that you would be able to respond to any threats.
One thing that we are working with the Philippines on in particular is giving them the capacity and the capability to spend more time beyond their littorals, and by that I mean further from shore. And so, I’m not going to say that activity near the Scarborough Shoals was necessarily intended to send a message; but when you think about the Philippines’ claim for their waters, that opportunity to get them out further from shore, do maritime awareness, and – when appropriate – enforce laws and treaties within their Exclusive Economic Zone, it simply requires that we get them further from shore.
Now, with respect to your question on flares, I’m not familiar with the details of the particular incident that you describe. But flares are an international distress signal – again, as part of that international norms – and so they could have been used to signal a distress. But again, without further details on that incident, I can’t really speculate as to the intent of the parties involved there.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Looks like we only have time for about one more question. If we could please go ahead and go to Alden Monzon from Kyodo News. Alden, please, go ahead.
Question: Admiral, yes, good morning, sir. I just want to ask how is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your partnerships and lineup of activities with your Asian partners? And what are the challenges you are facing, and how are you addressing this?
VADM McAllister: So, the second part of your question, was that related to COVID challenges as well?
Question: Yes, sir.
VADM McAllister: Well, as is the case with all of our international partnerships really around the world, COVID has definitely limited our ability to do the type of face-to-face, human-to-human engagements that we find, and I believe our partners find, so valuable. We’ve used, as much as possible, virtual engagements like this one and to try to bridge the gap. But time will tell as to whether we’ve been effective in doing that. I would say there’s certainly – from my perspective as a regional commander, I’m looking forward to when travel restrictions begin to be eased and I can go and look people eye-to-eye and kind of re-form those critical partnerships.
It has also been difficult from the perspective of putting ships to sea and keeping them to sea. Getting a crew ready for sea – including quarantines, vaccinations, and other measures to ensure that they’re protected – has been difficult. And then staying at sea for months at a time in order to carry out our missions has taken a toll on our crews. And so, we’re hopeful that our partnerships allow us to emerge from COVID as quick as possible and so that we can kind of restore those person-to-person engagements that we, and our partners, desire most.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That’s just about all the time we have. But Vice Admiral McAllister, do you have any closing remarks for us?
VADM McAllister: Let me say thank you again, Zia, for putting this together, and I have just a couple of concluding notes.
In my mind, being a partner of choice means committing the needed or requested time, energy, presence, and resources, and I believe that’s what the Coast Guard is doing and certainly will continue to do throughout the Indo-Pacific while I am here.
We have an enduring role in the Indo-Pacific region going back over 150 years, but I would say our commitment today is stronger than ever.
And hopefully as I’ve portrayed to you here, partnerships are really key to us to upholding that rules-based international order and effective maritime governance that I referred to a number of times. And in those partnerships, the U.S. Coast Guard is the partner that shows up.
So, thanks for the opportunity to speak about the U.S. Coast Guard’s operations and, ideally, our value in the Western Pacific, and I look forward to future opportunities to engage with you through this great forum to share information.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank once again U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Michael McAllister, and I would also like to thank all of you for your participation in the briefing, and I apologize if we were not able to get to your question today. Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you.