In response to a request by the Solomon Islands, the first leg of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s 10-day regional diplomatic tour around the US Coast Guard, Myrtle Hazard boycotted a request to patrol the island nation’s exclusive economic zone after the Solomon police ship needed repairs.
A Coast Guard press release said the US cutter “helped fill the required operational presence by conducting maritime surveillance to deter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the northern Solomon Islands.”
Myrtle Hazard was already in the area as part of Operation Blue Pacific, what the Coast Guard calls “a comprehensive, multi-tasking endeavor … promoting the security, safety, sovereignty and economic prosperity of Oceania while strengthening relationships.”
Solomon Islands is just one of several Pacific island nations assisting the United States under Operation Blue Ocean, including, among others, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea — all of which are stops on the Chinese foreign minister’s tour.
China has proposed a comprehensive regional security and economic deal with a number of Pacific island nations, according to documents seen by CNN. The agreement, which touched on a range of areas including education and health, was the target of a meeting on Monday between Wang and foreign ministers of 10 Pacific island nations in Fiji.
The meeting ended without signing the proposed agreement, and Wang instead noted that the gathering had reached five “points of consensus.” And these areas, which are largely public statements such as deepening strategic partnership and striving for common development, did not include security.
If the agreement were accepted, it would have represented a major advance in Beijing’s connection to the region, which is of geostrategic importance in the Indo-Pacific.
Wang Yi defended China’s intentions during a press conference in Fiji on Monday, citing “questions” about why China “actively supports” Pacific island nations.
“Don’t worry too much and don’t be too nervous because the common development and prosperity of China and all other developing countries will only mean greater harmony, greater justice and greater progress for the whole world,” he said.
The Coast Guard is part of the Indo-Pacific strategy
“We will expand the US Coast Guard’s presence and cooperation in Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific Islands, with an emphasis on advising, training, deploying, and capacity building,” the strategy’s action plan says.
The Coast Guard website shows the cutters have spent hundreds of days and steamed thousands of miles in the past two years to help Pacific Island nations.
One of the main parts of Washington’s influence in the region is through its “cargo ship agreements” with 11 Pacific nations, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, according to for the United States. Coast Guard Publications. Under these agreements, partner nations defense and law enforcement personnel aboard U.S. cutters to enforce their country’s laws in the island nations’ EEZs.
Colin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the relationships the US Coast Guard has forged in the Pacific islands have deep roots.
Koh said that this “institutional web of defense and security relations” is something Beijing would have difficulty replicating.
“It does not enjoy the extent of the partnership networks that its geopolitical competitors, including the United States, have developed in the region for decades,” Koh said.
With fish considered a major food source and a major economic driver for island nations, the Coast Guard says the focus of Operation Blue Pacific is to deter illegal and unregulated fishing.
This has a lot to do with China.
With the world’s largest fishing fleet, “Chinese-flagged fishing vessels roam all over the world in search of catches and are popular for fishing within other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs)—particularly developing nations,” according to a 2021 report from the Brookings Institution.
Koh said the scale of China’s fishing activities does not help Beijing’s case for being a positive force in the region.
“Chinese fishing vessels are not necessarily viewed in a benign way – they are large fishing fleets in far waters equipped with larger, better-equipped vessels that can outrun local fishing boats, outpace the muscle and fish outside,” he said.
US Coast Guard ‘almost perfect’ tool
Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said the Coast Guard is “almost ideal… for building relationships with Pacific island nations.”
Schuster said Coast Guard cutters don’t threaten ships associated with people rescue as much as anything else.
“You cannot underestimate the importance of the Coast Guard … to relations in the Central and Western Pacific,” he said.
While some observers suggest that China also has a well-equipped coast guard that can do what the United States is doing in the region, Koh doesn’t see that happening, at least in the near term.
He points to Beijing’s problems in the waters closer to home, in places like the South and East China Seas, where disputes over fishing rights and territorial claims are fueling the Chinese coast guard.
It also raises questions about China’s credibility as a fair broker, he said, leaving the US Coast Guard an advantage.
“It’s hard to imagine China having enough political capital to push for something similar to what the United States is currently doing,” Koh said.
This story has been updated with additional reports.
CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to this report.