During the June Shangri-La Dialogue with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, then-U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented his counterpart with a gift: a book filled with 32 pages of photos and imagery of North Korean vessels receiving and delivering oil shipments in direct violation of Chinese economic sanctions.
Some of the vessels apprehended by the Coast Guard Legend-class National Security Cutter Bertholf in the East China and Yellow seas may well have made an appearance in that book, the cutter's outgoing commanding officer, Capt. John Driscoll, told Military.com.
"In this particular mission set, we brought in decades of expertise in countering smuggling at sea," Driscoll said. " ... It's a piece that the administration and the [Defense Department] can use to reassure allies that we can stop things going in [to North Korea]."
Bertholf returned July 2 from the Coast Guard's first full-length deployment to the Western Pacific in seven years. Driscoll said the Legend-class Cutter Waesche, also out of Alameda, California, was the last to complete a comparable pump to the region. Since that previous deployment, tensions between the U.S. and China have become more pronounced in the region. Of the three mission sets Bertholf, under the authority of the U.S. 7th Fleet, accomplished on the deployment, all were done to communicate a clear message to China, and with a wary eye on the country's reaction and response.
The deployment saw a first-of-its-kind Coast Guard transit of the Taiwan strait alongside a Navy destroyer. And, as the U.S. military's focus continues to bend toward the Pacific and highly capable National Security Cutters come online, it appears to have jump-started a new wave of Coast Guard support to the region. The Legend-class cutter Stratton deployed from Alameda for the Western Pacific in June, overlapping with Bertholf on its return journey.
During the first and last segments of the deployment, Bertholf found itself enforcing economic sanctions against North Korea, working to interdict oil shipments into the country and shipments of coal and other goods out. The crew dealt with vessels large and small, anywhere from 150 feet to more than 500 feet in length, engaged in a range of questionable maritime activity.
"We saw lots of vessels involved in ship-to-ship transfers of oil; a lot of them that live in an area that seems to be sort of outside of international conventions," Driscoll said. "Some of them, being flagged in one country, would change flags or operate without [their automatic identification system] on. ... Some might be transporting things to North Korea."
Bertholf continued to operate under the eye of Chinese maritime forces when it embarked on a series of partnered training engagements with other nations' coast guards during the deployment. While the cutter executed a large-scale search-and-rescue training engagement with the Philippines Coast Guard near Manila in mid-May, Chinese Coast Guard vessels remained at a distance, monitoring the training in view of all participants.
The cutter also engaged in partnered training with Japanese and South Korean Coast Guard forces. While the Pentagon has suspended large-scale military-to-military training exercises with the Republic of Korea amid efforts to de-escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea, the U.S. Coast Guard still has latitude to operate.
"I would challenge anyone to find a problem with conducting a search-and-rescue mission," Driscoll said. "If you're going to have two countries come together, it's hard to find a problem with search-and-rescue."
Much has been written of late about "white hull" diplomacy -- the ability of Pacific nations to use their coast guards in lieu of their navies to flout the territorial claims of China in the region.
Driscoll allows that international ships encountering a U.S. Coast Guard vessel might behave differently than if confronted by a U.S. Navy cruiser or destroyer with a full complement of missiles. But he said the message of the Bertholf crew was simple: We are a U.S. warship, and we operate in accordance with all the same rules and norms.
Such was the case when Bertholf transited the Strait of Taiwan in March alongside the Navy guided-missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur. It was the fifth transit of the kind within six months, part of an ongoing effort to challenge Chinese territorial claims and ensure free movement through international waters, but a first for a Coast Guard vessel.
"Having a white Coast Guard ship go through with a [destroyer], you have two U.S. ships going through," Driscoll said. "All it does is show the international community that the U.S. is going to adhere to international law. We'll do it the same, no matter what. ... We do it the same, and we do it professionally."
As is typical with such operations, China responded with a message of condemnation. That, and other low-level interactions between the cutter and other nations' vessels, served to reinforce the message that operating in the Western Pacific is neither predictable nor entirely safe.
Driscoll mentioned times, for example, when international norms dictated that a vessel should alert surrounding ships to its intentions -- and those communications were notably absent.
"The Chinese have grown huge in that region, and some of the things that happened are puzzling and don't seem to follow international convention," he said.
And while Bertholf operated at the edge of Pacific tension, its crew did so -- at least for the first week or so -- without a paycheck. During a partial government shutdown that stretched from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, pay for troops under the Department of Defense was protected, but pay for the Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, was not.
That's another reason Driscoll, who is transitioning to a new posting at the Pentagon, wants to remind people at home, as well as abroad, that the Coast Guard is a U.S. military service.
"Taking people away from home is hard, and I needed them to focus on mission execution so it was done safely and professionally. Trying to ask people to focus on the safety and security of the ship when they're worried about their families getting paid was just unconscionable," he said.
"I don't think we've ever taken people sand said, 'Go to sea, go to harm's way, go to some place where everybody's armed all the time. You're not getting paid ... it will be OK,'" he said. "The public forgets that we're an armed force, forgets that we do these things."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the description of the Taiwan Strait transit.