Chinese fishing vessels at Subi Reef on August 12, 2018. © DigitalGlobe, Inc. and © Vulcan Technologies LLC. All Rights Reserved

Washington has accused Beijing of “antagonistic, aggressive behavior” in disputed waters in disputed waters in the South China Sea, which are not consistent with rule-based order, the commandant of the United States Coast Guard said on Tuesday, noting the expansion of Chinese ship presence in the Indo-Pacific area.

Admiral Karl Schultz, speaking to reporters through telephonic conference, urged security allies and partners in the region to help “push-back” China’s maritime strategy, which is manifested by increased number of ships in the strategic waterway, including militia vessels.

“We reject the types of behavior, the antagonistic, aggressive behaviors that are not consistent with the rule-based order,” Schultz said, adding the Chinese coast guard, which used to be  under civilian authority, now reports directly to the central government through the people’s military police. “I think there needs to be an international push-back.”

The United States remains neutral on conflicting claims in the South China Sea, encouraging claimant-states to resolve the issue through peaceful diplomatic means based on rules of law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have vast deposits of oil and gas and rich fishing grounds. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims in the strategic waterway where about $3 trillion worth of global trade pass every year.

Washington has been helping claimant-states build capacity and capability, Shultz said, citing transfers of Coast Guard cutters to the Philippines and Vietnam and holding joint exercises and training with Malaysia. The Philippines has received three Hamilton-class weather high endurance cutters, which were refurbished and upgraded as the most capable and modern warships in the navy.

Shultz said the United States stood ready to assist allies and partners in the region to protect their sovereign rights and territorial waters by providing equipment, training and other technical assistance and by holding drills on anti-piracy, anti-narcotics and other law enforcement activities.

The US coast guard commandant, currently on tour in Saipan, said they have been providing support to smaller Pacific islands after observing increased Chinese presence in the area.

“We’re seeing additional presence,” he said as China tries to expand its presence around its second chain of island defense near Guam.  “There are clear indicators that the Chinese are operating in the region.  I think that is a factual finding.”

Schultz said the US Coast Guard has been operating closely with the US Navy to secure a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, deploying its large “national security” cutter, which recently conducted joint training with the Philippine Coast Guard near the West Philippine Sea.

“I think what we would champion is transparent engagement,” he said, adding the US maritime behavior should be “the model that supports rules-based order, free and open access to the sea lines of communication.” (Manuel Mogato)