The United States’ National Security Strategy leverages cooperation as a cornerstone. The President directs geographic combatant commanders to cultivate, maintain, and repair foreign relationships. Specifically, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) set the goal to “modernize and strengthen alliances and partnerships.”1 PACOM is home to half of Earth’s area, encompassing 36 nations and 50 percent of humanity, presenting unique opportunities for international outreach.
In the face of a rising China and increasing regional instability, PACOM partnerships are critical to maintaining regional security. Diplomatic and political overtones between the United States and China, however, make substantial military partnerships difficult. China and the United States agree on many points, but they disagree on other particularly charged subjects. In light of the overarching difficulties, both will benefit from partnerships regarding shared interests that are not strictly military.
One such interest is the growing problem of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Western Pacific. China and the United States independently express the urgent need to combat IUU fishing.2 A recent International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) advisory opinion on IUU activities presents the ideal on-ramp for China and the United States to cooperate on a non-military issue. The two countries must take the opportunity to cooperate on combating IUU fishing by establishing a combined task force with U.S. Coast Guard assets. Not only will the task force reduce the harmful effects of IUU fishing, it will build lasting partnerships while promoting high-level dialogue and cultural exchange.
IUU fishing is a crippling problem that decimates fish stocks in the Western Pacific. IUU activities are those that no nation regulates, monitors, or otherwise enforces. Much of it goes on undetected; it is fish piracy—the enemy of sustainable fisheries practices. In the ideal environment, nations work together to ensure fish stocks can meet present and future demand.
In the Western Pacific, where the majority of the population subsists on fish, IUU activities threaten economic stability.3 Recently, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft commented:
People ask why the Coast Guard partners with foreign governments to enforce fisheries laws far from our own nation’s coast. The answer is that the economic security of many of those partner nations is heavily reliant on delicate fish stocks, underpinning regional stability and security.4
IUU fishing implicates environmental, human-impact, economic, and political dynamics. Numerous worldwide governmental organizations remain on high alert. In the Western Pacific, the illegal haul represents nearly 30 percent of the overall catch, worth $10–20 billion each year.5 China recognizes the impacts of IUU fishing and continues to demonstrate concern through increased enforcement efforts.6 The Chinese maritime enforcement fleet is massing, and new fisheries directorates are flourishing. China is not alone. Navies around the world see the importance of combating the scourge as necessary to preventing maritime instability.7
The impact of the illicit practice is not unique to the Western Pacific; it occurs worldwide. IUU fishing triggered a regional fisheries-management board in the Atlantic to act by seeking an ITLOS advisory opinion. In the opinion, ITLOS sought to clarify several provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), specifically articles relating to the protection of living marine resources (LMR).8 A key component of the non-binding decision is the relationship between flag states’ and coastal states’ duties to protect LMR. Coastal states are primary responsible for monitoring and enforcing IUU laws in their own Exclusive Economic Zones. In an unprecedented decision, ITLOS also imputed flag states with an affirmative duty to take reasonable measures aimed at preventing their vessels from IUU fishing. The tribunal also emphasized that flag and coastal state cooperation is necessary if nations can hope to eliminate IUU activities.9 The tribunal was intentionally vague by not describing specifics, but its opinion clearly outlined how nations should act.
Though the opinion is not binding, it may evolve into customary international law over time. The United States and China may leverage the opinion as “political cover,” however, to cooperate on an issue of shared concern. Moreover, the issue is increasingly relevant to PACOM as a security concern, as noted by Admiral Zukunft’s comments in 2015’s A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.
Virtues of Having a Common Foe
The United States’ political dance with China is delicate. Each country is growing more financially dependent on the other, but ideological rifts remain. One such rift involves militarization efforts in the South China Sea. These divisions harm the effectiveness of any military partnership. As PACOM guidance indicates, it is imperative to improve the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a means of providing stability in the maritime commons.10 One way to meet PACOM goals is to establish a combined task force (CTF) of Chinese and U.S. Coast Guard assets to combat IUU fishing together.
Regarding IUU fishing, the United States and China can meaningfully engage on a non-military issue relevant to regional security while building military partnerships. The success of CTF 151 in East Africa serves as a template for the benefit of combined efforts.11 Through counter-piracy operations, member nations developed good relationships as a necessary consequence of working toward a common goal. Presently, the common goal of reducing or eliminating IUU fishing in the Western Pacific combines the best aspects of humanitarian concerns (by ensuring food security), maritime law enforcement cooperation, and regional stability.12
The Coast Guard is the only U.S. military branch with direct maritime law enforcement authority.13 Because it is primarily responsible for worldwide LMR enforcement in U.S. waters, it would be the lead service in building a partnership. The United States is responsible, either directly as a coastal state or indirectly through treaty, for enforcing LMR laws over a wide swath of the Western Pacific.14 Coincidentally, experts suspect that Chinese vessels commit a substantial portion of IUU activities in the Western Pacific.15 Under the recent ITLOS opinion, the United States and China have a duty to cooperate in addressing IUU fishing where coastal and flag state jurisdictions collide. The Western Pacific fits the requirement, providing a window of opportunity for the United States to engage. The United States has nominal jurisdiction as a coastal state, while China retains jurisdiction as a flag state. Examples where this could work include the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Combined counter-IUU patrols in the Western Pacific will positively advance inter-military relations. The unique role of the Coast Guard, as both military and law enforcement, provides the ideal “grease” for cultivating a relationship. Acting under the ITLOS guidance, and using the broad framework under the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, both countries can work together to tackle a common security issue.16 It is difficult to imagine any other such issue, not only where China and the United States more directly align, but also where the opportunity for cooperative partnerships is more apparent.
Big Ocean, Not Enough Ships
In addition to fostering increased cooperation on a security issue of mutual concern, teaming with China will enable the United States to make more than a token effort of combating IUU activities. In a nod to the “1,000-ship Navy” concept, the Coast Guard (and PACOM, more generally) must look to strategic partners to fill the gaps.17 The Pacific Ocean is vast, but the budget and assets supporting LMR enforcement in the Pacific are small. The United States must bridge the gap to make any meaningful progress. In contrast, China’s Weiquan Fleet (its maritime law enforcement fleet) is growing at a near exponential pace.18 Though China feels the impact of regional IUU activities more directly, the United States continues to acknowledge through policy statements that it is an important issue.
A combined fleet of Chinese-U.S. gray-hulled navy ships is difficult to fathom. Aside from an emergent non-security situation such as humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief operations, it is unlikely to happen. (One only needs to look at the debate on whether the United States should permit Chinese vessel participation in RIMPAC [Rim of the Pacific] exercises to get a sense of the complications.) The sight of U.S. and Chinese white-hulled coast guard ships steaming side-by-side, however, is more appealing to military and political elites. By using the ITLOS opinion as motivation, each nation can reason that it is acting for the greater international good. Undoubtedly, both the United States and China will benefit from acting together while fostering international goodwill.
Just as CTF 151 was mercilessly effective in combating piracy off the coast of Africa, a new IUU task force of sophisticated Chinese and U.S. assets may have similar effect. The Pacific is too large for the United States to reasonably patrol and enforce IUU fishing, given current constraints on ways. Innovative measures to fill the gap by implementing new means, however, will allow the United States to regain the upper hand. Not only can China and the United States address IUU fishing by working together, their effort will promote lasting partnerships, further cultural exchange, and a high-level dialogue between senior military and diplomatic officials. Each of these outcomes is a prerequisite for understanding national and cultural differences, while working together to solve other security concerns.
It is naïve to think that creating a combined IUU task force will immediately result in a multinational solution to other thorny diplomatic issues. The resulting relationships and understanding from combined operations, however, is a viable step forward in working together. Only by working together will China and the United States build the necessary trust to engage on more difficult problems.
A Rare Chance
Critics will argue that establishing a CTF to combat IUU activities is unrealistic. But the Coast Guard already engages China at a token level for fisheries enforcements.19 Opportunities for combined fisheries enforcement are rare, precisely because of the absence of formal agreements. In addition, there is the issue that CTF operations require a constant U.S. presence. That is difficult with limited Coast Guard assets. This argument has merit; the Coast Guard does not have an unlimited number of cutters available for Western Pacific detachment. But the Coast Guard could alternatively send law enforcement detachments, aviation platforms, or U.S. Navy assets.
Some individuals may remain concerned about implementing a permanent task force modeled after CTF 151. Consequently, the initial volley of combined operations could be seasonal. The Coast Guard already enjoys success with similar combined operations. The concern is valid, but solutions exist. One such example is the biannual Operation Kurukuru in the South Pacific. In this long-standing operation, the United States collaborates with the Forum Fisheries Agency for a temporary enforcement “surge” targeting IUU activities.20 Another example are existing (yet modest) operations in the North Pacific to combat illegal drift-net fishing.21
In the end, creating the task force may be a question of political will. Hopefully, by using the ITLOS opinion as international cover, China and the United States can come together to talk about IUU as an issue of mutual concern.
Opportunities for the U.S. and Chinese militaries to engage on a substantive level to combat an issue of common concern are rare. In fact, barring a major conflict in which the United States and China are allies, it may be impossible in today’s dynamic. The ability and opportunity to collaborate and form partnerships over the issue of IUU activities are substantial. The time for both countries to act is now. The benefits of generating strategic partnerships within PACOM are enormous for regional stability, while the costs are minor. In the interest of having a robust military relationship capable of crisis response, passing up this opportunity may be an unforgivable strategic mistake.
2. Lyle J. Goldstein, “Chinese fisheries enforcement: Environmental and strategic implications,” Marine Policy, vol. 40 (2013), 187–193.
3. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, March 2015), www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf.
6. Goldstein, “Chinese fisheries enforcement.”
7. Derek Reveron, Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010), 125–26.
8. “Tribunal Delivers Its Advisory Opinion Regarding Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Activities,” International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea press release, 2 April 2015, www.itlos.org/fileadmin/itlos/documents/press_releases_english/PR_227_EN.pdf.
10. “USPACOM Strategy.”
11. “CTF 151: Counter-piracy,” Combined Maritime Forces, http://combinedmaritimeforces.com/ctf-151-counter-piracy.
12. James Kraska, “The Lost Dimension: Food Security and the South China Sea Disputes,” Harvard Law School National Security Journal, 26 February 2015, http://harvardnsj.org/2015/02/the-lost-dimension-food-security-and-the-south-china-sea-disputes.
13. “Title 14, U.S. Code 89—Law Enforcment,” www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/14/89.
14. Ocean Steward: U.S. Coast Guard Marine Protected Species Strategic Plan (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 2000).
15. Kraska, “The Lost Dimension.”
16. “Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC),” www.wcpfc.int.
17. “USPACOM Strategy.”
18. Ryan Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 141, no. 4 (April 2015), 24–29.
19. Cooperative Strategy.
20. “Operation Kurukuru,” Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, 13 September 2008, www.ffa.int/operation_kurukuru.
21. “United States and China Coast Guards Interdict Vessel for Illegally Fishing on the High Seas,” U.S. Coast Guard 17th District press release, 5 June 2014, http://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/tabid/5693/Article/564215/united-states-and-china-coast-guards-interdict-vessel-for-illegally-fishing-on.aspx.