U.S. and Taiwanese officials have signed a Coast Guard cooperation agreement amid fears of Chinese attacks on the island.
“The United States is committed to deepening ties with Taiwan, and this MOU [memorandum of understanding] lays an important foundation for strengthened maritime law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Taiwan,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner. “Coast Guard cooperation is a cornerstone for promoting regional maritime security.”
The agreement was unveiled Friday, in Washington’s latest display of respect for Taiwanese officials as a governing authority. The decision “to establish a Coast Guard Working Group” points to how U.S. officials are helping Taiwan prepare to defend against the “grey zone” tactics that Chinese forces seem likely to use if Beijing greenlights an invasion in the near future.
“We have to come up with a short-term solution, and if you think about, ‘what is the best counter for grey-zone activity?’ It is the Coast Guard,” said former White House National Security Council chief of staff Alex Gray, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. “As a strategic matter, that’s the service best equipped to work with our allies, to work with fellow coast guards … to really be able to operate in a hybrid warfare domain.”
That idea may sound strange to people familiar with the U.S. Coast Guard’s law enforcement functions, just as the stated goals of the agreement may seem far removed from national security. “This MOU affirms a relationship with the common objectives of preserving maritime resources; reducing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and participating in joint maritime search and rescue as well as maritime environmental response events,” the American Institute in Taiwan, the unofficial U.S. Embassy on the island, said in a Friday bulletin.
China maintains a fishing fleet that has outraged governments around the world. In December, U.S. Coast Guard crews stationed in Hawaii and Guam helped the Pacific island state of Palau seize a Chinese fishing vessel accused of fishing in Palau’s waters. The U.S. Embassy in Palau praised the local government for working to “prevent PRC-flagged vessels from engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing” — the same language from the new Taiwan agreement.
The Chinese coast guard appears to its neighbors like a fearsome force, a view underscored by Beijing’s recent adoption of a law authorizing the coast guard to use lethal force to defend China’s territorial waters. China has several high-stakes maritime boundary disputes, making the coast guard law “a verbal threat of war,” as a Philippines government official put it.
Taiwanese officials agree.
“China’s coast guard law is shocking to its neighboring countries,” Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said. “So countries are working together based on shared values in an effort to maintain regional peace and stability.”
Chinese officials signaled their resentment of the deal. “We ask the U.S. to … stop official exchanges and military interactions with Taiwan and be prudent on Taiwan-related issues,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday. “We also ask Taiwan not to try to add to its importance by soliciting U.S. support.”
The Chinese coast guard and fishing fleets pose a special danger to Taiwan, in the eyes of American strategists who suspect that Beijing might try to convert them into a stealthy invasion force. This misgiving has been stoked by Russia’s use of so-called “little green men,” military forces in unmarked uniforms, to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea while claiming not to have deployed troops across the border, a lie that slowed Western responses to the 2014 invasion.
If China were to invade Taiwan in the near-future, fishing boats or Chinese coast guard vessels could provide cover for such a strategy, with the potential to confuse and paralyze U.S. or Taiwanese responses until it was too late to avoid defeat. U.S. Coast Guard officials likely will use this agreement as a basis to train Taiwanese coast guard forces on how to respond in the event of such a threat, according to Gray.
“If the Chinese show up with a fleet of fishing boats that don’t have any identification … at what point does their behavior trigger X, Y, or Z response from the Taiwanese side?” the former White House National Security Council official said. “This is a really helpful development for us to be starting a dialogue with the Taiwanese on answering those very tactical types of questions.”
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