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Chinese Maritime Assets Enforce Ocean Territorial Claims

July 1, 2014
By James C. Bussert


The Middle Kingdom is not shy about blue-water deployments to expand control over waters far from its border.

  • Two Chinese trawlers stop directly in the path of a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship in international waters in the South China Sea, forcing the ship to conduct an emergency all-stop to avoid a collision. China employs a broad spectrum of vessels ranging from “civilian” fishing boats to armed navy warships to enforce its claims to multiple territories in and around the South China Sea.
     Two Chinese trawlers stop directly in the path of a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship in international waters in the South China Sea, forcing the ship to conduct an emergency all-stop to avoid a collision. China employs a broad spectrum of vessels ranging from “civilian” fishing boats to armed navy warships to enforce its claims to multiple territories in and around the South China Sea.

This is the second article in a two-part series. For part one, click here.

China has claimed and built up numerous islands, rocks, atolls and reefs in and near the South China Sea to support territorial claims in waters far away from the Middle Kingdom. Important differences in territorial sea and exclusive economic zones between them explain why some are more important than others. Islands that can be inhabited have 12 miles of territorial sea and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Atolls have territorial sea but no EEZ, and submerged reefs have neither claim rights, even if above-water structures are built on them.

The plain fact of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) for any naval or commercial sea lines of communication or non-Chinese fishermen is undeniable, especially with recent air defense identification zone mandates. First-time fleet operations around Japan in June 2012 and in the east Indian Ocean in February 2014 demonstrate Chinese plans for operations beyond the current A2/AA lines. And, new Chinese hardware—both land- and sea-based—increasingly is being pressed into actions asserting territorial claims that likely are part of a broader A2/AD strategy.

China has three levels of maritime assets to enforce area denial, and all three levels are controlled by government direction. Initially, China opts for “civilian” fishing boats. One example took place in July 2012 when 30 fishing vessels sailed to Subi Reef to fish during a 20-day mission—immediately after an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting on South China Sea claims. Vietnam, Philippines and Taiwan all claim Subi Reef. The Chinese fishing boats were escorted by the Yuzheng 310, which leads up to the next level—government maritime protection vessels (MPVs) of larger size that sometimes are armed.

The use of actual People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships is a high escalation that can lead to international incidents. U.S. underwater surveillance vessels have been harassed by Chinese ships, starting with USNS Bowditch in 2001 and again in 2002. In March 2004, two Chinese Bureau of Fishery (BOF) ships tried to cut the towed array cable on the USNS Victorious in the Yellow Sea. In March 2009, five Chinese vessels including BOF and State Oceanographic Administration (SOA) ships, harassed the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. On June 12, 2009, a Chinese submarine damaged the surveillance towed array sensor system of the USS John McCain DDG 56 near Subic Bay in the South China Sea.

Long before the 2013 Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands crisis, Japan and China disputed claims in the East China Sea Shirakaba/Chunxiao oil fields, where Chinese trawlers and coast guard ships asserted Chinese claims. In February 2005, PLAN frigates were replaced by a Sovremennyy DDG, and this presence sharply escalated in August 2005 when a five-warship surface action group, including a Sovremennyy and two frigates, cruised the disputed area. This represented a strong Chinese government statement. On April 18, 2012, two Chinese MPVs blocked a Philippine Navy flagship from eight fishing boats at PI Panatag Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island, in Scarborough Reef.

On March 31, 2013, a four-ship amphibious task force of Jinggangshan LPD 999, Lanzhou DDG 170 and frigates Yulin 569 and Hengshui FFG 572 went to the far southern limit of China’s South China Sea claim, deep to James Shoal. This was 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Malaysia, 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Brunei and 1,800 kilometers (1125 miles) from China. In April 2013, these ships passed from the South China Sea into the western Pacific to continue exercises beyond the second island chain.

Late last year, China sent the carrier Liaoning escorted by two destroyers and two frigates into South China Sea international waters for “training.” On December 5, 2013, when the USS Cowpens (CG-63) was observing these operations inside of 28 miles, a PLAN landing ship tank (LST) cut in front of the U.S. cruiser and a collision was avoided only by an emergency stop by the cruiser. More typical was when the landing ship Changbaishan and destroyers 052B Wuhan and 052C Haikou departed from Yulin, Hainan, for a three-day patrol to the Xisha Islands on January 20, 2014. Hovercraft and helicopters exercised in the islands.

Although Hainan Island off the coast of southern China is north of the South China Sea islands, China has built up southern Hainan with new port facilities for its aircraft carrier, its newest Aegis-type destroyers and nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. In the 1980s, China installed a 60-degree arc over-the-horizon radar with range of more than 2,000 miles (3200 kilometers) south, along with other extensive electronic warfare facilities and a satellite launch site—all of which directly support operations from the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the western Pacific.

A major reorganization of eight maritime protection agencies occurred in March 2013, when five of the agencies that had their own separate headquarters, flotillas and ports were combined under the SOA as a single Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) entity. Creating a single coast guard similar to those of other nations eliminated the difficulty of trying to coordinate sea patrols by separate shore and sea structures that competed with each other for money, people and missions. It allowed China to consolidate parallel groups at the same location.

One change in direct capability was that previously allegedly unarmed protection vessels now could be armed as coast guard vessels. The new CCG consists of 11 province squadrons that break down into 20 flotillas in one to three ports totaling more than 11,000 personnel. This contradicts China’s claim that only CCG vessels could be armed (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2011, “China’s Phantom Fleet,” and November 2011, “Parsing China’s Fourth Fleet”).

Many vessels belonging to four of the agencies were armed, and all in the Maritime Border Defense Force were armed in 2011. Most had 14.5-millimeter machine guns, but at least eight vessels had 37-millimeter guns. The strategic South China Sea region immediately felt the impact of the reorganization, which was typified by previous China Marine Surveillance vessels 167, 168 and 169 being recommissioned as CCG 3367, 3368 and 3369. The former Fishery Law Enforcement Command vessel Yuzheng 310 of 2,580 tons became the CCG 3210 with white paint, red stripes and two 14.5-millimeter quad machine guns forward. Typical of these vessels, it has wideband satellite communications; electro-optic track, infrared and ultraviolet detectors; and a helicopter. In August 2013, Fujian province received its first new CCG vessel, hull 212 of 1,337 tons. The use of MPVs to aggressively back down Indonesia in 2009, Japan in 2010 and the Philippines in 2012 to protect Chinese fishermen in other nation’s waters can increase with the single CCG.

The first announcement of the deployment of a new antiship ballistic missile version of the DF-21 series of mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) emerged in 2010, and it was labeled the DF-21D. Several articles and Internet sites pronounced the end of the aircraft carrier as a viable platforms within missile ranges that varied from around 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to more than 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers). Now, 1,000 miles is believed to be the correct range.

The respectable capabilities of missiles with controlled maneuverable reentry vehicles (MARVs) and synthetic aperture radar combined with optical sensors promise the ability to target maneuvering targets—specifically a carrier task force. The first DF-21D battalion is estimated to have been located at a Base 53 training facility in Qingyuan, southern China, in late 2010. Two additional operational brigades are sited in Shandong, northeast China, and Xinjiang, near Kazakhstan. In the following five years, the first alleged field exercise took place in 2011. Only one identified operational test announced by Taiwan China Times of two craters allegedly from a DF-21D against a “carrier-sized” target on the Gobi desert. This was a fixed target with no other targets around it or active electronic or defensive missile features to provide realism to the alleged results.

Since that time, the U.S. Navy has been very busy developing active measures to break the Chinese kill chain, notably in the Cooperative Engagement Capability; antiballistic missile upgrades including new missiles and electronic jamming and deception and development of anti-antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) shipboard lasers on larger ships.

China has not followed up its ASBM testing in realistic at-sea tests that are required to justify claims of initial operational capability by Chinese and Western military experts. Even the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency 2013 report on the status and capabilities of the Chinese ASBM is merely minor rewording of previous 2006 and 2009 reports, with no new hard material verifying increased operational testing or results based on realistic at sea scenarios. Currently, the Chinese ASBM appears to be a paper tiger, with most of the paper generated by the Western external sources. However, the pace of Chinese military development, including refinement of satellite and remote targeting, make U.S. Navy development of lasers and jamming defenses a high priority to protect carrier groups in the Pacific.

James C. Bussert, employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, is the co-author of “People Liberation Army Navy Combat Systems Technology, 1949-2010.” The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Navy.

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