The top U.S. Coast Guard official is eyeing a unique role for his fleet in maintaining peace and stability in the East and the South China seas under the incoming presidential administration.
By mirroring the role of China's Coast Guard in parts of the Asia-Pacific, said Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, the U.S. Coast Guard could be the face of U.S. military presence in disputed waters without appearing too threatening.
"When you look at the East and South China seas, look at China's Coast Guard, it is really the first face of China," he told VOA. "So I've proposed to the Department of Defense that if they were to leverage the U.S. Coast Guard, I would look at providing resources to provide the face of the United States behind a Coast Guard ship, and should that be a consideration for our approach to the East and South China seas with the next administration."
Compared with blue-hulled destroyers or cruisers of the U.S. Navy, white-hulled vessels of the U.S. Coast Guard, Zukunft said, may be better positioned to get through the "narrow door of diplomacy."
"The U.S. Coast Guard has a very good relationship with the Chinese Coast Guard, with each side frequently boarding the other's ships to carry out joint maritime law enforcement activities," he said, adding that Coast Guard officials and rank and file have had more frequent interaction with Chinese forces than with those of other foreign nations.
People's Liberation Army sailors pat down U.S. Coast Guardsmen playing the role of merchant mariners aboard the Coast Guard cutter Waesche off Hawaii, July 16, 2014. Chinese sailors boarded the Coast Guard cutter Waesche for a drill checking cargo as part of Rim of the Pacific exercises.
Were the incoming administration open to the prospect, he added, the U.S. Coast Guard also could help Vietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries develop maritime law enforcement capabilities, and help maintain peace and security in the surrounding waters.
Zukunft's deputy, Admiral Charles Michel, told a major naval conference in February that commanders of the U.S. Pacific Command also hoped the U.S. Coast Guard would send ships to the South China Sea to assist the Navy in efforts to maintain international order.
Over the past few years, China has frequently placed Coast Guard ships at the forefront in its efforts to significantly step up its claims of sovereignty in the East and South China seas.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin service.