Conflicts - TensionsFree and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPOceaniaPartnerships

U.S. Coast Guard affirms legality of patrols, boardings with Pacific partners


Recent boardings of Chinese fishing boats by the United States Coast Guard and Pacific island partners were conducted at the behest of Pacific nations to protect their coastal fisheries, officials said, dismissing Beijing’s claims that the joint patrols violate international law.

Six Chinese fishing vessels were found to be violating Vanuatu’s fisheries law after being inspected by local police who were aboard the first U.S. Coast Guard boat to patrol the island nation’s waters.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane partners with local police, fisheries agencies and other officials in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in early 2024 to model good maritime governance, bolster capacity, and combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Chinese fishing vessels often encroach on other nations’ maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZ), experts say. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) distant-water fleet of 4,600 boats is the world’s largest and reaches farther into the high seas each year, according to the U.S. Naval Institute reported.

The PRC’s ambassador to New Zealand claimed the use of bilateral shiprider agreements between the U.S. and nations including Kiribati, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu to “carry out law enforcement activities against China’s fishing vessels” violates international law.

U.S. officials rejected those claims.

“We do these boardings at the behest of those host nations who invite us to board, to work with them collaboratively in protecting their exclusive economic zones,” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael Day said at a ceremony marking the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane’s return to Hawaii from its Pacific patrol in April 2024.

“A Free and Open Indo-Pacific is predicated upon the following of international rules and norms and laws, and I am happy to say the Coast Guard is complying with all international law, and these are legal boardings,” Day said.

Cmdr. Nicole Tesoniero, commanding officer of the Harriet Lane, said shiprider agreements with Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu resulted in 23 boardings of fishing boats operating in the “far reaches of the respective countries’ exclusive economic zones,” with 12 violations found by local law enforcement.

“The targeting of vessels within the exclusive economic zones as well as the enforcement actions were all dictated by our partners,” Tesoniero said.

The PRC’s fishing fleet in the South Pacific should be considered a “maritime militia” based on its activities in the East China and South China seas, said U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“If it were to get to a time or place where we have a crisis … those fishing vessels are fishing and then they will take on a mission of pressurizing the host nation or the nation whose exclusive economic zone they are operating in,” Aquilino said.

Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom also have stepped up joint patrols for illegal fishing with Pacific island partners, many of whom do not have the personnel or vessels required to monitor coastal waters and EEZs spanning millions of square kilometers.

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