The New Great White Fleet – Will China’s fleet of secret surveillance ships soon outnumber the US Navy?
It has been over three years since China made the drastic, but failed, attempt of ordering the U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship, USNS Impeccable, to leave the South China sea. The order ratcheted tensions between the US and China but resulted in little more than political volleys being thrown between the two countries. China has not given up however on claiming almost the entire body of water as their own, demarcating their claims within what is known as the nine-dotted line. A line which overlaps the borders of virtually every other country in the region.
Rather, they have turned their attention from military to commercial vessels in the area.
Three weeks ago, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs expressed “grave concern” in a statement to the Chinese Embassy after a fleet of Chinese vessels around Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground just 123 miles (198 km) west of the former American stronghold of Subic Bay Phillipines and well within that country’s Economic Exclusion Zone, began harassing local boats Tensions increased between the both countries until yesterday when both nations, citing the arrival of typhoon season, ordered the pullback of vessels in the region.
While many local fishermen argued against the pullback, the orders come from the top and carry the weight of their country’s presidential seal. News first appeared over the weekend of Philippines’ president Benigno S. Aquino’s ordered that all Philippine vessels return to port citing the rough seas and heavy rains of three tropical storms which currently surround the island nation. It is hoped that China follows suit and a diplomatic solution for each nations sovereignty claims are found.
“We hope there will continue to be an easing in the situation and hope bilateral cooperation will recover and be safeguarded,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei on Monday.
Some maritime experts in the region believe however, that tensions will again escalate after the menacing typhoons disappear.
Worries extend not only over the larger nation’s diplomatic claims over the region – claims in which China argues span centuries of maritime history – but in China’s increasing military strength in the region. At the heart of the problem is the aggressive newbuild strategy of the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency, a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency created on 19 October 1998 under the auspices of China’s State Oceanic Administration and responsible for law enforcement within the territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and shores of the People’s Republic Of China.
Does history repeate itself?
Painted white with the English words, “China Marine Surveillance” emblazoned in tall blue letters across the sides of their hulls, the vessels being built for CMS are reminiscent of the great battleships built by the United States at the turn of the last century. Those ships, were painted gleaming white to represent the peacetime stance of America’s naval power, but color aside, the primary purpose of those vessels were to enforce the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed the United States to “exercise international policy power” and keep smaller countries on their feet. The vessels, later referred to as America’s Great White Fleet, also surved to enforce America’s claim over foreign territories won in the Spanish American War. Territories which included the Phillipines.
CMS’s ships approximate the size Roosevelt’s battleships – the largest being just 20 meters shorter in length than the dreadnought USS Carolina, but they are by no means modern battlewagons capable of projecting military might. Rather, the ships are lightly armed law enforcement vessels that, without external armament, look less intimidating than a US Coast Guard coastal patrol ship.
While the CM ships are relatively small, between 78 and 98 meters in length, and may be only lightly armed, they are certainly enough to intimidate fishing vessels and may prove effective in future actions against larger targets.
Can small arms intimidate oil rig workers?
The CMS fleet has the proven audacity and speed to harass vessels of sizes ranging from small fishing boats to the 281 foot (85.78 m) USNS Impeccable, but unarmed fixed structures may be the primary target. Agency vessels are keeping a close eye on offshore oil and gas structures in the region and, in March of this year, CMS issued a press release citing the successful surveillance of “illegal exploration of oil and gas fields” in the South China Sea. The fields in question are located off the coast of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), a group of uninhabited islands Japan claimed following a 1969 UN survey which reported likely oil and gas reserves in their adjacent waters.
In addition to Japan, CMS is watching other efforts to develop oil and gas fields in the region and, last November, a YouTube video was released by a Vietnamese commercial ship harassed while supporting offshore oil and gas exploration activities off the coast of Vietnam.
Are Commercial Ship Escorts?
While the efforts of China’s Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency have been mostly restricted to surveillance of military and commercial vessels engaged in activities within the region, last week brought news of a development which may disturb the average mariners.
According to Indian newspaper The Hindu, a small convoy Indian naval ships left the Philippines earlier this month headed for South Korea when they received an unexpected message from a Chinese warship: “Welcome to the South China Sea, Foxtrot-47,” buzzed a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigate to the INS Shivalik (F47).
Disturbing to Indian officials was the fact that this was not a CMS vessel undergoing a routine harassment but a fully armed naval ship tracking the movements of a sovereign nation through international waters. According to news reports the Chinese warship escorted the four Indian vessels for 12 hours while they transited one of the world’s most important waterways.
“The tone of the message was welcoming, but was also as though we were entering Chinese waters,” an official told The Hindu. The Chinese ship left the Shivalik’s side after 12 hours, revealing that it had been instructed to move away by a message from PLAN headquarters.
This aggressive move surprised some Indian navy officials who where prepairing to meet with their counterparts in China. According to The Hindu, both countries will this year hold a first-ever maritime dialogue, and have also stepped up coordination in joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean.
The question on the minds of mariners transiting the region is “What’s next”. Only time will provide the answer but it is clear that China has definate plans for the future. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, CMS is currently planing to have 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by the end of 2015, and more than 15,000 personnel by 2020 the possibility, the fleet will have the capability to conduct close surveillance missions throughout the South China Sea. The telegraph also claims the maritime surveillance forces logged the transit of 1,303 foreign ships and 214 planes in 2010, up from a total of 110 vessels tracked in 2007. “The logical next step is actively monitoring those 1,300 vessels” said on US Navy expert who did not want to be named. ” With 350 vessels, a number approaching the entire US Navy operational fleet, they will have the capability to both track and escort a majority of ships transiting the region.”