The U.S. and Philippine coast guards sailed through a waterway claimed by China during a joint drill, officials said Wednesday, in a show of strength that underscored an evolving new role in the Asia Pacific for the American military’s fifth branch.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf and the Batangas, a search-and-rescue ship from the Philippine Coast Guard, were among vessels that took part in the just-concluded maritime exercises near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, officials said.
“This type of engagement gives us a great opportunity to share our experiences and learn from our partners in the Philippine Coast Guard,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of U.S. Coast Guard operations in the Asia-Pacific.
“The US Coast Guard is proud to operate with our Pacific counterparts, and together we are dedicated to enhancing our capabilities and strengthening maritime governance and security while promoting individual sovereignty,” Fagan said in a statement.
The joint drills included a mock search-and-rescue scenario, officials said.
Off in the distance, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels seemed to be monitoring the exercises but did not interact with the Philippine ship, said Cmdr. Gary Dale Gimotea, skipper of the BRP Batangas.
Manila refers to Scarborough Shoal, a triangular-shaped chain of reefs and rocks about 198 km (123 miles) off Subic Bay on the west coast of Luzon island, as Panatag Shoal.
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the sea.
‘We’re US warships’
The participation in the drills of the Bertholf, a 418-foot cutter based in California and one of the American coast guard’s most modern and advanced ships, was likely a preview of the military branch’s bigger role in the South China Sea, which Manila refers to as the West Philippine Sea, according to security analysts. The Coast Guard is the last branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The naval exercise “proved an excellent opportunity to compare techniques, maintain proficiency and build a friendly relationship amongst professional mariners and coast guards,” Capt. John Driscoll, the Bertholf’s commanding officer, said in a statement.
“Our relationship is critically important as we work together to ensure the ocean remains free and open, with a respect for international law and rules of behavior at sea, and where mariners are safe to carry out their livelihood – whether they’re on a cargo ship or fishing vessel,” he added.
During its deployment in the Indo-Pacific region, Bertholf serves under the operational control of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, according to a news release from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Bertholf sailed through the East China Sea in March this year in what security analysts had described as a changing role for the U.S. Coast Guard, which traditionally operates closer to the United States.
Although the Coast Guard falls under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Bertholf has carried out several missions typically assigned to the Pentagon, including a port stop in Hong Kong on April 15 – the first time the Coast Guard had visited the Chinese territory in 17 years – according to the Washington Post.
Bertholf’s deployment was also the first time in years that the Coast Guard had sent a large vessel to the Asia-Pacific region, reports said.
Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, told the Post last month that as the Defense Department shifted its focus to competing with Russia and China, the Navy was “oversubscribed.” He cited “realities in the South China Sea,” among other factors in the shift.
“The Coast Guard brings some authorities below the threshold of war,” he said. “We’re U.S. warships, but we look different, with a white hull and an orange stripe.”
Tensions over Scarborough Shoal erupted some seven years ago, when Chinese vessels prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had illegally entered the area.
The stand-off led to a diplomatic brawl, but it was resolved after both sides agreed to pull their forces out of the area. The Philippines did so, but China lingered in the area, which is well-within Manila’s exclusive economic zone and considered a traditional fishing ground by Filipinos.
Then-President Benigno Aquino subsequently took the Chinese to court in a bid to resolve the dispute, and in July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila. China, however, ignored the ruling and asserted its territorial claims in the disputed waterway by building military facilities on islands that it occupies there.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who entered office a month before the court ruled in the case, quickly moved to appease China and distance his government away from the United States, the Philippines’ traditional ally.
But Duterte’s pro-China policy appears to have backfired, amid recent reports that more Chinese ships were now clustering in the disputed maritime region. This forced the Philippine president to issue a rare warning to Beijing to stay away from areas controlled by Manila in the South China Sea.
And last week, in another joint show of force, the Philippine Navy joined the U.S., Japanese and Indian navies in sailing across South China Sea after recent drills in South Korea. The exercise was meant to test freedom of navigation in the region.
Meanwhile in Singapore on Wednesday, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of U.S. Naval Operations, said the maritime patrols in the sea were not meant to challenge China specifically, but part of maintaining a consistent presence in the disputed waters.
“I’ve done the analysis so that I can state with confidence that our level of operations, our presence there, has been consistent over the decades,” Richardson told a security conference, according to press reports. “There’s nothing that has spiked recently.”
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines contributed to this report.