A week after a Coast Guard cutter fired 30 warning shots at several Iranian fast-attack craft in the Strait of Hormuz, President Joe Biden said the service is integral to asserting "democratic values" in a world increasingly threatened by autocracies.
Speaking at the Coast Guard Academy's graduation Wednesday in New London, Connecticut, Biden described the current state of global affairs as a "significant inflection point in world history," and told graduates they will play a pivotal national security role, particularly overseas.
"Time and again, there's not a single thing we cannot do as a nation when we do it together," he said. "This is particularly important in this moment of accelerating global challenges -- hybrid threats that don't stop at our border. We have to meet them on land and sea, wherever we find them."
Roughly 240 cadets were commissioned during a socially distanced ceremony held at the school's football stadium. During the commencement address, Biden noted increasing threats from climate change, illegal fishing, economic disruptions and efforts by China and Russia to exert power that require a U.S. response. That includes the Coast Guard, which has a unique role as both a law enforcement agency and maritime force, he said.
"Long-standing basic maritime principles like freedom of navigation are the bedrock of global economic and global security. When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance," Biden said.
The Coast Guard has seen its role increase overseas in the past few years, in the Indo-Pacific region where it has engaged in freedom of navigation operations; in the Arctic, where it monitors the environment and presence of other nations; in the Caribbean and Western Pacific, with increased law and fisheries enforcement; and in the Middle East.
In March, the U.S. and Taiwan signed an agreement that bolsters cooperation between the nations' coast guards -- a response to China's increasing maritime aggression in the region.
The U.S. Coast Guard maintains a presence in the area to enforce the boundaries of international waters and stop illegal fishing and drug trafficking. The agreement with Taiwan followed objections by the U.S. over a Chinese fishing fleet of more than 200 ships harbored near a disputed portion of the South China Sea.
"That's why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful," Biden said. "... It is of vital interest to America to ensure the unimpeded flow of global commerce, and it won't happen without us taking an active role, to set the norms of conduct, to shape them around democratic values, not those of autocrats."
The president pledged to maintain the principles of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, which the U.S. has never ratified.
"[The treaty] outlines many of the key principles to ensure that our waters and our planet are not exploited by any one nation, but are preserved for the benefit of all," Biden said.
The Coast Guard Island-Class cutter Maui fired warning shots May 10 at Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fast attack craft as the Iranian boats harassed six U.S. vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.
The incident was the second in less than two weeks in which Iran challenged the presence of U.S. warships in the area, conducting what Pentagon officials said were "unsafe and professional maneuvers" that violated regard for the safety of U.S. forces.
Biden said the Coast Guard plans to permanently station six of its new fast response cutters in the region to maintain maritime security.
At home, the service will continue to respond to an expected increase in worsening storms as a result of climate change, maintain its role as stewards of the environment, patrol the Arctic and interdict drug smugglers, he said.
The Coast Guard Academy's graduating class is made up of roughly one-third women and one-third minorities. Biden said the class's generation is what gives him hope for the future.
"You're the most progressive, the best-educated, the least prejudiced, most open generation in American history. We need you badly. You are ready. It's time to get underway," he said.
The speech wasn't, however, entirely without the folksy teasing that Biden is known for delivering nearly any chance he gets.
After noting that he had told the academy's Class of 2013 they were entering a service that was "not their father's Coast Guard," he called out Cadet 1st Class Eric Schultz and reminded him that it "WAS his father's Coast Guard."
Schultz is the son of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz.
And after receiving no reaction after telling the class that the Coast Guard is the "hard nucleus around which the Navy forms in the time of war," he chided them, calling them a "dull class."
"C'mon, man. Is the sun getting to you?" Biden asked. "I would think you'd have the opportunity when I say that about the Navy, you'd clap."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.