Tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan continue to ratchet up. In the latest incident, on March 24-25, the US Navy destroyer Curtis Wilbur, and the US Coast Guard cutter Bertholf, transited in company, the Taiwan Strait.
The two American ships reportedly entered the strait from the southwest, and steamed through in a northerly direction. Geng Shuang of the Chinese Foreign Ministry duly issued a forceful protest.
The incident was significant on two counts. Firstly it provided a further indication of the steadily expanding role of paramilitary vessels, rather than warships, in the pursuit of Asian maritime rivalry. Secondly, it highlighted the possibility that the USCG might in future engage in search and rescue (SAR), and disaster relief exercises with ships of the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration. A powerful pro-Taiwan lobby in the US Congress advocates formal professional contacts between US and Taiwanese maritime forces, and participation by USCG, rather than naval, assets is a politically attractive option.
The 4,600-tonne Bertholf is a Legend-class national security cutter. Its usual duties include SAR, border security and anti-illegal immigration and anti-narcotics smuggling operations. Although not equipped to survive extended high-intensity warfare, the ship has significant combat capability.
Armament consists of a 57mm cannon, a Phalanx close-in weapon system and six machine guns. Advanced air and surface radar is fitted, together with an electronic warfare suite. There is a hangar and flight deck for a MH-65 or HH-60J helicopter, while gas turbine/diesel propulsion enables a speed of 26 knots.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.