The Trump Administration is looking at deploying one of three Coast Guard fast response cutters (FRCs) currently scheduled to arrive on Guam, over to American Samoa in what is a sure sign of rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific.
In a media briefing call Saturday morning, Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, announced a $5 million feasibility study exploring the ship’s home-porting in American Samoa for, “maritime security missions, such as fisheries patrols.”
It would still be 2-3 years before the ships are built and deployed to that region.
O’Brien said the study is in coordination with the Office of Homeland Security and meant to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“We must protect our shared values, our communities and our security. This is especially true as the Chinese Communist Party expands its malign and predatory influence, especially in the Western Pacific,” said Ambassador O’Brien.
Less than two weeks before the 2020 General Election, O’Brien said, “if conditions and appropriations are favorable, we will make infrastructure investments in American Samoa to make this possible.”
A senior U.S. Government Official clarified with PNC News that the three FRCs are expected to be on Guam by end of FY 2021. The feasibility study announced Saturday morning would be for basing one of those FRCs in American Samoa. The study would begin in FY21.
“A new fast response cutter will enhance the Coast Guard’s foot print in the Island and it’s ability to patrol, surveil and protect as well as enforce U.S. laws. We also expect to have two of the fast response cutters based in Guam.”
While the ships are still at least a couple of years away from being postured in American Samoa, O’Brien affirmed, “we think it will be a real upgrade to the security of the region.”
The issue is not just an increase in Chinese military activity; instead, Trump’s Security Advisor outlined the economic and environmental pressures from China on sovereign states, making it clear that this is a battle for resources and territory.
“Increasingly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is expanding its predatory and opaque financing. It’s pushing non-viable and environmentally threatening infrastructure projects. It’s behaving aggressively at sea, building military outposts in the sovereign territory of other nations; encouraging its fishing fleet to trespass into other nations’ waters; and, harassing lawful commercial vessel activities,” said O’Brien.
He also mentioned on more than one occasion China’s dumping of mass quantities of plastics and trash in the ocean, saying, “that’s affecting many of you in the Islands.”
“These actions directly threaten our collective security, our economic prosperity, and our critical natural resources and wildlife. In fact, the People’s Republic of China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases; the largest source of marine debris; the worst perpetrator of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing; and, the world’s largest consumer of trafficked wildlife and timber products.”
In response, O’Brien says the Trump Administration is taking the matter head on.
“We’re building these terrific 150-foot new fast-cutters which have a 2500 nautical range and can be out at sea for 5 days, crewed by 24 Coast Guardsmen and women – they’re very potent tools.”
In a statement to PNC News, Governor Lou Leon Guerrero said, “the National Security Advisor paid me a courtesy call in light of Guam’s pivotal role in the security of the nation and the Indo-Pacific region.”
“Central to that discussion,” she said “is growing concern about China’s economic and military influence in this part of the world. We also appreciate the possibility of an expanded Coast Guard presence, protecting trade, fishing grounds, and commerce in our part of the world.”
The FRCs are being built in Louisiana and as they begin coming online, the U.S. military will assess its needs around the world, with O’Brien saying the Pacific is a region of great interest for ship placement.
“To protect our country as a whole but specifically to protect our fellow Americans who are out in the Pacific, in American Samoa, the CNMI and Guam,” said O’Brien.
As for the responsiveness of getting the ships to the region, O’Brien acknowledged that the move for more deterrence capability should have been done previously, however he blamed the Obama Administration for cutting defense programming and military spending.
“I don’t think we’re too late. I think we still have a very robust U.S. Navy that will out-class any Navy, including the PLA Navy, in the region and around the world. We’ve done a lot on Guam to build up Guam and I think we’re going be moving out to some of the other Islands as well,” said O’Brien.
“These things take time; it takes time to build modern warships. And it takes time to build the facilities to support them but we’re getting those things underway and hopefully they’ll be there in time to make a difference and increase the safety of Americans living in the region but also our friends who are like-minded.”
The ships will need land-based support infrastructure which is also a part of the feasibility study analysis. The ships themselves would have a crew of 24 however, there’s no definitive answer on how many people would be employed in the support facility in American Samoa.
O’Brien emphasized that the move would not only support Americans in the region, but allies as well saying the additional capability will allow the U.S. military the opportunity to partner with “like-minded nations,” citing the Cook Islands, Fiji and Solomon Islands as a few examples.
He says the USCG will help these nations enforce their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). “Much like a ride-along for Police…authorities from [ally] countries can be on-board and help enforce their EEZs.”
One major point the Security Advisor repeatedly turned to is China’s illegal fishing.
The Asian giant is known to send massive ships for fishing, where it is not permissible for them to do so under international law.
The Chinese maritime fishing militias, dubbed ‘little blue men,’ are being used strategically by China to assert power and control in the waters.
O’Brien said the U.S. military has been tracking a lot of activity from the so-called ‘little blue men’ further down the Pacific, as well.
“Where we’ve seen a lot of them recently is in Ecuador, in the Galapagos Islands…we’ve seen just this massive 200+ flotilla of the ‘little blue men.’ We haven’t seen specifically these threats in the American territories in the Pacific but it’s something we’re concerned about. When these ships come through, these militia-type trollers come through, they strip fish and they destroy the natural habitats that these Island-nations rely on,” said O’Brien.
He compares the so-called fishing militia to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ‘little green men’ in Ukraine.
A GreenBiz article says the total size of China’s global fishing fleet varies widely. “By some calculations, China has anywhere from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats, accounting for nearly half of the world’s fishing activity.”
And that’s why the versatility of the USCG is crucial for the region, said O’Brien.
“The great thing about the Coast Guard, is they’re like a Swiss Army knife, they can do a lot. And, they can do a lot with these new fast response cutters.”
As of now, there are no plans to post additional USCG ships in the CNMI however, while based in Guam and American Samoa, O’Brien said the additional ships “would certainly patrol up in the Commonwealth.”
Trump’s Security Advisor says the Coast Guard has a long history in the region, “and in an era of increased Chinese aggression, this support has never been more important.”
O’Brien also commented on the recent opening of the Taiwan Cultural and Economic Office on Guam, saying the Taiwanese and American people do a lot of business back and forth and providing consular services is crucial to facilitating this success.
“We don’t see this as a provocation [to China]. This is something that was fully anticipated…with China. We are going to stand by and help our friends in Taiwan do the things they need to do to make a living and conduct business,” said O’Brien.