China’s Maritime Surveillance Fleet Adds Muscle

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China’s Maritime Surveillance Fleet Adds Muscle

China has added new capabilities that could increase tensions in the East and South China Seas even more.

As China continues to harden its stance on territorial disputes, a recent report notes that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has transferred 11 decommissioned warships, including two destroyers, to the country’s maritime surveillance agency.

After undergoing renovation, the vessels—which include the two Type 051 (Luda I-class) guided-missile destroyers (DDG) Nanning and Nanjing, as well as surveillance ships, tugs and icebreakers—were transferred to the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency to “alleviate the insufficiency of vessels used to protect maritime interests.” The two 3,250-tonne destroyers, which can travel at a maximum speed of 32 knots, are to split their time between the East China Sea, the scene of a mounting dispute with Japan and Taiwan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with a number of countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines. Prior to their decommissioning last year, the two 30-plus-year-old DDGs were armed with 130mm guns with a range of 29km, as well as anti-ship missiles.

China’s Ministry of National Defense and the CMS have yet to comment on the transfer.

However, Yu Zhirong of the Research Centre for Chinese Marine Development, wrote in the Xinhua News Agency-linked International Herald Leader that the capabilities of the CMS had been “greatly strengthened” and that the civilian agency’s capacity to execute missions was “sharply improved, providing a fundamental guarantee for completing the currently arduous task to protect maritime interests.”

Since 2000 a total of 13 new vessels have joined the CMS fleets. These have aimed for greater displacement, ostensibly in recognition of the somewhat larger vessels operated by the Japanese Coast Guard. The current (12th) five-year plan calls for the addition of 36 new marine surveillance ships in the 600-, 1,000- and 1,500-tonne category by 2015.

The Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, whose ships have operated near the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea and near the Senkakus, is also known to have integrated decommissioned warships into its fleet in recent years. 

Like Japan, China has so far refrained from sending its navy ships into contested areas to avoid escalation.

However, to some observers, the addition of refurbished warships to the civilian agency, which falls under the State Oceanic Administration, could be a worrying sign of militarization, all the more so as there are signs indicating that Beijing is losing patience and is ready to enter a new, perhaps more belligerent phase, in various territorial disputes.

In an interview with Chinese media published on December 29, Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the China Society of Military Science and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), made it clear that China’s so-called “self-restraint” might not last much longer.

Prior to 2012, China’s policy on maritime disputes was one of self-restraint and shelving disputes while seeking common development, Luo said. However, the countries concerned have not put disputes aside and instead chose to highlight the controversies through unilateral “anti-Chinese” acts and provocative actions, he said, directly mentioning the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island).

According to Luo, from 2012 on, all countries have entered a period of high risk and fierce competition.

Regional tensions will likely be exacerbated by China’s increasingly bold and frequent naval and aerial intrusions into what Japan regards as its territorial waters near the Senkakus, and by the announcement in late December that China plans to spend $1.6 billion developing infrastructure on islets in the South China Sea “administered” by Sansha City, a prefecture-level entity created in July. According to reports late last month, part of the funds will be used to acquire marine law enforcement vessels and supply ships.

Unless Beijing’s increasingly muscular posture compels regional claimants to back off, the militarization of the CMS bodes ill for 2013. With the new Liberal Democratic Party government of Shinzo Abe vowing to increase defense spending and refusing to back down on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, escalation in the East China Sea looks increasingly likely. In the South China Sea, meanwhile, regional security will be contingent on the extent to which the principal claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, are emboldened by the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Last year was already marked by historically high tensions within the region. If trends continue, 2013 promises to be even more perilous.