The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Boutwell has sailed from Honolulu to Shanghai to pick up a Chinese law enforcement officer and will then sail on to the northwestern Pacific to look for vessels engaged in illegal fishing. During the patrol, the ship is scheduled to call at Yokosuka in Japan and Petropavlosk in Russia.
Boutwell’s voyage reflects what a Coast Guard officer called “a developing network for maritime security” that includes America, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. Without much fanfare, coast guards and other law enforcement agencies have been working together to detect fishermen who violate international agreements, illicit drug smugglers, and traffickers in human beings.
Besides having ship riders on U.S. cutters, Chinese patrol boats have exercised with U.S. cutters and helicopters, and Russian and Japanese coast guards have coordinated operations against North Pacific drift-netters. An officer said the Japanese coast guard captured a vessel smuggling drugs because a Chinese crew radioed a description of the vessel that outran them.
Several weeks ago, officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, China’s Border Control Department, Japan’s Coast Guard, and South Korea’s Coast Guard gathered at the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum in Honolulu to discuss “best practices.” The Russians didn’t come but are hosts for a high-level meeting in St. Petersburg shortly.
High on the agenda were differences in legal systems, which the officers agreed were perhaps the biggest obstacles to working together because each nation gives different authority to its officers. China’s legal system tends to be draconian. Japan’s is layered with German and then American concepts. Korea’s legal system, imposed by Japan’s occupation of 1910-1945, is still infused with ancient Confucianism.
On the other hand, an exchange of ideas on how to discover hidden compartments went easily. “We know how to measure rather precisely,” said an American officer. “We can make sure they can’t put drugs in a secret place.”
Much was the same in swapping ideas on counter-drug operations, on training and certifying people to board ships suspected of wrongdoing, on when the use of force was permissible. The computerized U.S. information system to track vessels on the high seas drew considerable interest from the Asians.
Even so, the coast guards, all on tight budgets, have far to go and maritime relations among the six nations can sometimes be tense. A Japanese military analyst, Kazuhisa Ogawa, was quoted in a Tokyo newspaper as saying: “Japan, as a seafaring nation, does not have an adequate maritime monitoring system.”
Somehow, a ship from Vancouver, Canada, managed to slip into the port of Osaka, Japan, with 640 kilograms of illicit drugs hidden in a shipment of lumber. Customs officials, suspecting something amiss, X-rayed the lumber to find a record cache. They arrested four Chinese who contended they only came to pick up the lumber.
Two months ago, the Russians arrested the captain of a Japanese trawler and charged him with catching salmon illegally. The trawler, which had permission to fish in Russian waters on the Pacific side of the Kamchatka Peninsula but not to take a certain kind of salmon, has been detained until the owners pay a fine of 10 million rubles (equivalent to $389,950 U.S.).
In a wider perspective, the U.S. Coast Guard has sought to engage China just as have the U.S. military services, State Department, and the Treasury. The point is to draw the potentially hostile Chinese into constructive international activities — and persuade them not to miscalculate U.S. capabilities and intentions.
The director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, Lyle Goldstein, wrote this month: “The U.S. Coast Guard is opening the door to a cooperative relationship with China.”
The Chinese have what Mr. Goldstein called “an impressive array of boats, ships, helicopters, and maritime patrol aircraft” but are “not deployed with maximum efficiency” because they are operated by different agencies that often don’t support each other. China’s coast guard “lacks aircraft and centralized command and is subordinated to regional border defense commands, limiting it to inshore enforcement.”
Mr. Goldstein cited “notable differences in priorities as the [U.S.] Coast Guard is focused more then ever on the terrorist threat, while Chinese authorities are currently most focused on trade, safety, and of late, environmental issues.”
“Still,” he wrote, “the fundamental tie between the organizations is that the U.S. Coast Guard has centuries of experience in civil maritime management, while the issue is a comparatively new priority for China.”
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.
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