Moderator: Good afternoon, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Hub director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States. Today, we are pleased to be joined by the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, who will be speaking to us from the Philippines.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from the Admiral. Then, we will turn to your questions. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on-the-record. And with that, I will turn it over to Admiral Schultz. Please go ahead.
Admiral Schultz: Thank you to our moderator, Zia Syed, and good day to all. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the United States Coast Guard and our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. I’m pleased to be visiting the Philippines and will soon depart for Japan. Both nations are key partners and instrumental to the transparent, rule-based order in the Pacific. The United States Coast Guard has an enduring role in the region, going back over 150 years, and my visit serves to reaffirm that our commitment today is as strong as ever.
I was honored to attend the 75th anniversary of General MacArthur’s return to Leyte Gulf that began the liberation of the Philippines in the Second World War. The Coast Guard played an important role in that liberation – Coast Guardsmen were among the first U.S. service members to land on Leyte during heavy fighting. On Saturday, I also visited with the crew of the Coast Guard’s 418-foot flagship, National Security Cutter Stratton, while on a port call in Puerto Princesa, Philippines. These Coast Guardsmen have been deployed to the Indo-Pacific region since June, conducting maritime defense and security operations with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in the South and East China Seas, and broadening partnerships and alliances throughout the region.
The crew of Stratton is wrapping up its participation today in Maritime Training Activity Sama Sama, which also includes the United States and Philippine Navies and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. This is the third iteration of Sama Sama, a maritime exercise designed to promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance interoperability. Both National Security Cutter Stratton’s and my visit are essential to maintaining our long and rich partnership with the Republic of the Philippines.
But our partnership is much deeper than these occasional visits. The Coast Guard remains committed to robust training and technical assistance efforts supporting the Philippine Coast Guard. Across the region, the U.S. Coast Guard’s specialized capabilities and expansive international relationships enable us to partner – to build partner-nation capacity and model the rules-based values and behaviors that we want to see in the region. Through our presence, engagement, and partnership, we are often a maritime bridge between our Department of Defense’s lethality and our State Department’s diplomacy.
While the Philippine Coast Guard’s capabilities and capacity grow, many Indo-Pacific nations lack the ability to fully police their sovereign waters, making them vulnerable to: narcotics trafficking; human smuggling; illegal, unreported, and unregulated — what we call IUU — fishing; piracy; and terrorist activities. In the face of coercive and antagonistic behavior from China, the U.S. Coast Guard offers transparent engagement and partnership at both the professional and personal levels.
My goal for the United States Coast Guard is to be a transparent and preferred partner in the region. Thus, we tailor our services and training to the needs of the specific nation we are supporting. Our long-term commitment to capacity-building spans the range of Coast Guard expertise, including: transferring cutters through the Excess Defense Articles program – including three former Coast Guard 378-foot High Endurance Cutters to the Philippine Navy; multi-national security exercises; bilateral search and rescue and law enforcement agreements; the hosting of shipriders; and deploying training teams to share technical expertise and build proficiency.
We also support enhanced maritime safety, security, and environmental protection through activities such as Aids to Navigation sustainment, fisheries enforcement, counter-drug patrols working with Joint Interagency Task Force-West, or what we call JIATF-West, and advancing prosperity by ensuring the free flow of global maritime commerce.
In the past 10 months, the Coast Guard has deployed two National Security Cutters, the Stratton and the Bertholf, to the Indo-Pacific Region. These National Security Cutter deployments strengthen maritime governance, advance partnerships, and confront threats to the United States.
In August, we successfully deployed Coast Guard vessels in a new operating concept to strengthen the community of island nations in Oceania through what we termed Operation Aiga, which is Samoan for “family.” This 30-day deployment of multi-mission cutters included a 225-foot buoytender and a new 154-foot Fast Response Cutter, provided specialized capability to our partners. Our intention is to continue these operations in the Central Pacific, delivering training and professional knowledge tailored to the needs of each nation.
We also demonstrate our enduring commitment to the region by homeporting three of our newest Fast Response Cutters in Guam over the next two to three years. The addition of these cutters will significantly increase U.S. Coast Guard presence throughout the region. This increased capability will allow more frequent and longer patrols to protect Exclusive Economic Zones from illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing threats as well as defend against increasing drug trafficking in the region.
But beyond sending ships to the Indo-Pacific to conduct operations and make strategic port calls, I want to be clear on what I believe to be the Coast Guard’s special contribution in the region, and that is human-to-human interaction. Like with Operation Aiga, we are best when we apply our people to various problem sets and showing our enduring commitment through hands-on training, exchanges, and support.
Not only are we doubling down in Oceania through expanded presence and expeditionary capability, we are actively enhancing maritime-professional-to-maritime-professional engagements as Pacific Island nations are increasingly concerned about illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing and other forms of encroachment on their sovereignty. The United States Coast Guard is proud to be operating with our Pacific partners to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific where individual sovereignty is paramount and should always be protected.
I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.
While we’re waiting for people to join the question-and-answer queue, Admiral, if it’s okay, I’d like to go ahead and ask a question that we received in advance.
The question we received was concerning the increased use of the Pacific Islands as drug-trafficking routes. And the question was if the U.S. Coast Guard is concerned or active in trying to counter the drug-trafficking activity that is occurring in the Pacific, specifically in the South Pacific. Please go ahead, sir.
Admiral Schultz: Sure. I appreciate the question, Zia. Yes, we’re absolutely concerned with that threat. I would tell you that the Coast Guard is doubling down in Oceania, and I mentioned the homeporting of three Fast Response Cutters, 154-foot cutters, in Guam over the next couple of years. We’re focused on building out the capabilities of our partner island nations, and that’s really to help them deal with a wide range of concerns regarding their sovereignty. Whether that’s IUU fishing, whether that’s drug trafficking in the region, we are there to help them.
Many of these countries are small island nations. They have finite capacity. And we’re there to help them build their resolve, understand their authorities, do some partnering. We have shiprider exchanges with many countries. I think that’s a place where the Coast Guard on that human-maritime-professional-to-human-maritime-professional engagement – those are great places for us to really do what we do best.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. We will first turn Adlinna Abdul Alim, who is with the Asian Defence Journal [in Malaysia]. Adlinna, please go ahead.
Question: Yes. Good day, Admiral. Okay, my question is that you mentioned you thought that the Coast Guard [inaudible], especially in the case of IUU activity. So may I know, on that, what can the U.S. Coast Guard offer [inaudible] Coast Guard and maritime law enforcement agencies here to curb these activities?
Admiral Schultz: I just want to make sure I understand the question, Adlinna. You’re asking what can the Coast Guard do to help with the capabilities for maritime law enforcement here with the regional partners? Is that along the lines of what you’re asking me, ma’am?
Question: Yes. Because you had mentioned earlier that you – that the coast guards here in the region, in Asia, lack the capacity to curb IUU activities. So may I know, can we assume that offer [inaudible] to your counterparts here [inaudible]?
Admiral Schultz: Okay. Yes, sure. I think my last question was really a little bit about the Oceania region and the Pacific Island countries, the smaller island nations. But if you sort of pull it up to a regional approach, here in the Philippines, what we’re doing is we have a comprehensive relationship with the Philippines. They’re a comprehensive capacity-building partner, and we have a wide range of activities we’re engaged with here.
We do mobile and resident training, so we send maritime mobile training teams to the region to train here in the Philippines. We bring Philippine Coast Guard members back to the United States in some of our resident courses. We – about 75 are scheduled to come to Coast Guard schoolhouses in the United States this year. As I mentioned, the National Security Cutter Stratton is here, just wrapped up participation in Operation Sama Sama; that was working with the Philippine and U.S. Navy, first time this year with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
And so it is capacity building. It’s the exchange of ideas, subject matter experts, IUU fisheries – fishing enforcement. That’s one of those technical areas that we can exchange and share best practices on. Some of that is going to involve, down the road, some shared technology as well. I think what we see, a common pattern for IUU violators sometimes, is operating without their vessel monitoring system or their Automatic Identification System, AIS, depicting their position. And some of that has a technological component as well.
So we’re looking to, as an international community, work multilaterally to identify IUU violators. The IUU fisheries is a threat to the global sustainment of the fisheries.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we have Dzirhan Mahadzir from USNI News in Malaysia. Dzirhan, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, Admiral. You mentioned Operation Aiga. Now, what are the results of that? Any lessons learned that will impact future deployment? And where is the roadmap for doing – for future deployments after Operation Aiga?
And just a second question: Once the Stratton wraps up its current mission – what’s the future for U.S. Coast Guard deployments to the region? Thank you.
Admiral Schultz: Well, thank you for that question. I would say Op Aiga, I think, was a resounding success. We went down and worked around American Samoa, and what I – I said it was a medium, 225-foot buoytender – which is sort of a support vessel. That crew has some organic capabilities to also do training and law enforcement operations. A 154-foot Fast Response Cutter sailed out of Hawaii as well as the buoytender; that’s about, almost 2,400 miles distance. So it demonstrated our expeditionary capabilities of these new Fast Response Cutters.
We partnered while we were in the Samoa region with the New Zealanders – the Kiwis – and the Australians. Each of them had a vessel involved in the region there a little bit, so it was multilateral in its approach. It was very well received by the host nation. What lies ahead in the future, I think we’re looking at taking that proof of concept 30-day operation here from recent weeks and pushing that into probably a little longer duration in the future. I think your question is about where are we going next? I think we’re still looking to sort of put some dates on that. We haven’t determined where’s the next target area, but I think as we look at the COFA [Compact of Free Association] states, we look at the Federated States of Micronesia, that’s probably in the area of interest to us right now.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we have Andreo Calonzo from Bloomberg, based in Manila. Andreo, can you please go ahead?
Question: Hi. Good afternoon. This is Andreo from Bloomberg Manila. Admiral, you mentioned in your opening statement about China’s coercion and antagonistic behavior in international waters. Could you share with us your most recent observation, your findings about China’s actions in the South China Sea? And how would you assess their presence there in that area now, and how do you plan to address this? Thank you so much.
Admiral Schultz: Andreo, thanks for the question. I think my comments were about China’s antagonistic, coercive behaviors in probably disputed waters, not per se in international waters. I think that’s an important point. But if you asked me how would I assess China’s current presence in the South China Sea, my personal observations are that China seems to be more focused on advancing their own, and their expanding, interests in the region versus the broader Indo-Pacific, Asian partner nations’ regional interests.
One of the findings about their activities – we have a saying here in my country, talked a little bit – where the audio doesn’t match the video. We talk about – China talks about their peaceful conduct, but then we see manmade islands where there weren’t islands before. We see runways on those islands. We see anti-ship cruise missiles and other military capabilities that don’t match that rhetoric. And I think the Coast Guard, as part of a U.S. Government response and a multilateral U.S. Government partner nation ally response, is really focused on continuing to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and that’s based on internationally accepted norms and the rules-based order. So that’s sort of my snapshot and assessment of the region there, Andreo.
Question: To follow-up, sir, what do you think is China’s end goal in doing this? As you said, their rhetoric doesn’t match what’s happening on the ground, so what’s their end goal here?
Admiral Schultz: Andreo, I’m going to probably dodge that question and not be the China expert here. I’m more of a tactical, pragmatic Coast Guardsman, ship driver that’s going to focus on sort of my observations and what my service has been observing here versus projecting what – I’ll leave that to the academics to talk about what China’s longer-term interests are in the region then.
Question: Okay. Let me just rephrase that, or revise that question. So you mentioned that there are increasing presence of – are those weapons in the artificial islands? Are you seeing an increasing presence of these weapons now?
Admiral Schultz: I would say we’ve seen places like Fiery Cross Reef that went from non-existent just about, to a manmade island, to now the military capabilities being present here, whether that’s fighter aircraft on the ground or not. So, we are clearly seeing a rhetoric that says no, we’re not militarizing the region in the past years, and then we see the behaviors that indicate otherwise.
I think if you look at China’s One Belt and Road Initiative, if you look at the Polar Silk Road Initiative, there’s clearly sort of a roadmap where China’s looking at increasing its access across the globe. Recently, I was in Greenland, and China had been expressing some interest in partnering with their airport development and some possible seaport opportunities. As a U.S. Coast Guard that operates as the sole maritime capability on an annual basis in the Arctic, we see China’s research vessel, the Snow Dragon, up there six of the last nine years. So I think China clearly is – has some expansive intent, but I’m going to leave it limited to that.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next, we’ll go to Meaghan Tobin from the South China Morning Post [in Hong Kong]. Meaghan, please go ahead.
Question: Thanks very much, Admiral. You mentioned possibly increasing presence around the COFA states and the Federated States of Micronesia, and I’m curious if you would be willing to expand upon that at all [inaudible] Coast Guard is kind of planning to increase the importance of its presence in COFA states, and whether it’s in your observation that COFA states are kind of welcoming an increased U.S. military presence in their waters right now?
Admiral Schultz: Yes, thanks for the question, Meaghan. I think back to the question about Op Aiga and the successes there and sort of what’s the way forward. I think we found in Samoa, American Samoa, that that operation, that concept of operation, was proved to be effective. I think you’re going to look at more of that matching an expeditionary Fast Response Cutter, which is a smaller crew, and supported by a bigger ship that can bring food, that can bring additional fuel, that can give them other support services. I think that operation would lend itself well to FSM and the COFA state areas. I think it – my sense from our sector commander, regional commander who is based in Guam – is that there is this high receptivity.
I was out and met with, in the FSM, the ambassador, Ambassador Riley, not too long ago and my sense from our Country Team in the region was this would be very well received, and they’re looking for more. Those three Fast Response Cutters that are heading to Guam in the next 18, 24 months really bring much longer legs and capabilities than we have today and yesteryears.
So I think we’re on a trajectory where the geostrategic importance of the Oceania region has not been higher here in decades, and it’s a place that the Coast Guard’s looking to be part of the whole-of-government solution set.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next, we’ll go to Peifen Chou from Up Media in Taipei. Peifen?
Question: Thank you. My questions are related to kind of the South China Sea defense capabilities. Taiwan took our coast guard administration with [inaudible] vehicle to make [inaudible] alongside the [inaudible]. Yes, could you explain how the United States and its [inaudible] that the [inaudible] capability in South China Sea? And meanwhile, some Taiwanese politicians have said they will promote international cooperation projects [inaudible] in the waters by the island. Is this kind of plan likely to complicate the South China Sea dispute?
Admiral Schultz: Zia, I wonder if you could give me – maybe a little help on that. I’m not sure I captured the essence of that question there.
Moderator: Yes, it was – that’s correct. I’m afraid I had difficulty as well. But it did seem to be about – my understanding is that it was about U.S. cooperation, potential cooperation with Taiwan Coast Guard and the Taiwanese in the region.
Question: Mainly – my question – I will explain a little. Taiwan Coast Guard administration has new planes [inaudible] planes and other like UAV planes.
Moderator: I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m sorry, we are – it’s very difficult to actually hear you due to the phone line. I’m afraid we’ll probably have to move on. Admiral, if you’d like to just comment generally on the question as we understood it, but I think we’ll have to move on to the next caller.
Admiral Schultz: Yes, Zia, I would say I just had a hard time really understanding the question well enough to take a stab at that. So I think we just move on here.
Moderator: Understood, sir. Thank you. Next we’ll go to Caitlin Doornbos from Stars and Stripes [based in Japan]. Caitlin, please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Thank you very much. I was just wondering if I could get kind of a succinct quote on what the Coast Guard can offer in terms of presence and messaging in the Western Pacific that perhaps naval vessels could not?
Admiral Schultz: Yes, Caitlin, I think the short quote on that is I think the Coast Guard operates below that level of lethality of the Department of Defense on the high end side of things and above that level of diplomacy at State Department. We’re in that sort of sweet spot in the middle. We bring that human-maritime-professional-to-human-maritime-professional of a partner nation. We bring that very much to the forefront. I think we do that well, whether that’s shiprider exchanges, whether that’s capacity building, whether that’s mobile training teams, or bringing folks from a partner island country in the Oceania region back for training in the United States. That’s our, I think, special sauce or key ingredient out there is it’s an alternative to checkbook diplomacy. It’s a human-to-human interaction.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. We’re going to be wrapping up here soon. I just wanted to ask, Admiral, we got a couple questions in advance if you’re able to comment on U.S. Coast Guard cooperation with Vietnam. A couple of reporters were saying that it seems like cooperation is good, but if you had any comments on how it stands and how it may look in the future.
Admiral Schultz: Yes, Zia, I appreciate that question. I’d say cooperation with Vietnam is very strong. And I hosted Lieutenant General Son, the commandant of the Vietnamese Coast Guard, last summer at our headquarters in Washington, D.C., so that’s a key leader exchange. We do subject matter expert exchanges with the Vietnamese Coast Guard. We’re really focused on maintenance support or maintenance augmentation. There’s a former 378-foot High Endurance Cutter that was sent to Vietnam under the Excess Defense Articles program. We’re helping them get the maintenance of that ship up and figure out how to crew that appropriately to utilize in support of their operations. There’s a foreign military sales case where they’re going to purchase 24 Metal Shark boats, small boats to support Vietnamese Coast Guard operations, and we’re really working with other U.S. Government agencies to build out the Vietnamese Coast Guard, the Vietnam Coast Guard capabilities and capacities. So there’s a real positive ongoing story with the Vietnam Coast Guard.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Admiral. And if – we’ll wrap up with just one more question that we received in advance, and then we’ll turn it over to you for closing comments. That question was whether the Coast Guard has any role in this region with regards to enforcing sanctions with North Korea. If you could comment on that.
Admiral Schultz: Sure, Zia, I would. Regarding DPRK or North Korean sanctions enforcement, our Coast Guard National Security Cutters that have been in the theater now for a good part of the last nine-plus months have been operating in the East China Sea under the support or supporting the 7th Fleet, which is under the United States Indo-Pacific combatant commander, and we have, in fact, been doing some sanctions enforcement work. That’s work that’s right up the Coast Guard’s alley here a little bit for these National Security Cutters and their capabilities and the capabilities of the crew.
So I envision some continued presence by the Coast Guard here when we have ships in the region working on that DPRK sanction enforcement mission.
Moderator: All right. Thank you, Admiral, and that’s just about all the time we have. I was wondering if you’d like to make any closing remarks before we wrap this up.
Admiral Schultz: Sure, Zia, absolutely. First and foremost, thanks for the opportunity to be on the call today. We’re really in the region here reinforcing the value of like-minded countries or friends, partners, and allies in the region. That is very consistent, I think, with what our American embassies here are promoting regionally. We’re trying to build the capabilities in terms of maritime services here, whether it’s coast guards, regional navies, other maritime forces.
In Malaysia, they have the Malaysian Maritime [Enforcement] Agency we partner with. We’re helping them with safety, security, projecting sovereignty in their exclusive economic zones, and really, economic prosperity. There’s a lot of interest in IUU – illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing – and that really is a burgeoning mission set across the globe here a little bit. And as I’ve been a Coast Guardsman for a long time here, that seems to be sort of the burgeoning key area of interest. I think we’re trying to figure out – the Coast Guard can’t be the global IUU policeman, but we clearly can start to paint the picture about who’s behaving well, who’s not, and how we might embrace technology to better understand the challenges there.
And it’s just – we’re just proud here as an organization to be in the region partnering with those like-minded friends, partners, and allies, and just have had a terrific visit here the last couple of days in the Philippines and heading to Japan here to meet with the head of the Japan Coast Guard next week, and I’m really excited about our ability to work with some strong partners in the region.
Moderator: Excellent – That concludes today’s call. I want to thank U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz and I also would like to thank all of our callers for participating.
Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia-Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you very much.