For the first time, the United States Coast Guard has shown its flag in this part of the volatile region, taking active part in a joint maritime security exercise between Manila and Washington, a clear sign of the growing coast guard engagement under the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The deployment of its modern USCG Stratton, a 418-foot national security cutter, in Palawan demonstrated Washington’s readiness to match the naval strategy Beijing employs in the disputed South China Sea.

China has been harassing foreign vessels in the strategic waterway by sending hundreds of fishing and maritime vessels, backed up by its coast guard vessels, to protect the civilian ships from interception and arrest by other sovereign states, including the Philippines. The powerful People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) stands a few miles away but ready to engage if necessary, a classic cabbage strategy which the Philippines learned the hard way in 2012 when it tried to arrest Chinese fishermen collecting giant clams in
Scarborough Shoal.

In May 2012, the Philippines made a tactical mistake by sending its most capable navy ship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to arrest Chinese fishermen poaching in Scarborough Shoal. While the Philippine Navy was busy trying to make an inventory of what was taken from the shoal, Chinese coast guard ships as large as the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar arrived and prevented the navy from arresting the Chinese fishermen.

What followed was a three-month standoff, when the Philippine Coast Guard sent its ship to the shoal to replace the Philippine Navy warship.

It took several years for the United States to come up with a new Indo-Pacific stategy and recognize the need to deploy its coast guard vessel to the region to match China’s effective naval strategy. A US coast guard component now sails together with the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, sending a carrier strike task force to patrol the South and East China Seas.

The deployment of coast guard assets in conflict areas is not really a new strategy. US Coast Guard servicemen were among the first to wade in the waters of Palo, Leyte when General Douglas MacArthur returned to liberate the Philippines on October 20, 1944.

The 75th Leyte Landing commemoration was led by the commandant of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, who is on a three-day visit to Washington’s long-time security ally and former colony.

While on the country, Admiral Schultz, is expected to discuss bilateral cooperation and bolster partnerships with the local coast guard, which has upgraded its equipment and capabilities with Japanese-made ships and larger vessels from France and Australia.

“My goal for the US Coast Guard is to be the partner of choice in the region,” Admiral Schultz said in a press statement from the US, embassy in Manila. “Our specialized capabilities and expansive international relationships enable us to build partner-nation capacity and model rules-based values. We are proud to be operating with our Philippine partners to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

Admiral Schultz will also take time to visit US coast guard servicemen who are part of a maritime training activity called “Sama-Sama” between the US and Philippine navies in Puerto Princesa in Palawan.

Both sides will explore ways to expand and deepen bilateral relations through the conduct of more training and maritime and law enforcement exercises, key functions of the two services to protect the sovereignty of their respective countries.

The US Coast Guard has transferred to the Philippine Navy three of its 378-foot weather high-endurance cutters (WHEC), ex-USCG Hamilton — currently the most capable warships in its fleet.

In the past, Washington and Manila’s security alliance saw their army, navy, air force and marines train and exercise together through “Balikatan” and about a dozen more conventional military drills and hundreds of small unit cross-training and expert activities.

Admiral Schultz’s visit and the participation of coast guard servicemen in annual maritime security drills cement and broaden the two countries’ security and transnational crime engagement.

More importantly, it’s the classic example of Washington’s dramatic shift of its security strategy in the region, slowly matching Beijing’s naval strategy and expanding its Asia-Pacific presence beyond, to include parts of the Indian Ocean.