The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on Thursday, September 26, observed that several China Coast Guard vessels patrolling in the South China Sea appear to want to be seen.
According to the Washington-based think tank, the vessels are largely unarmed, except for water cannons and small arms, but are much larger than the law enforcement or most navy ships of their neighbors, making them ideal for operations that might involve threatening collisions and, if necessary, shouldering other vessels to drive them away without using lethal force.
“What really sets the vessels patrolling Luconia, Second Thomas, and Scarborough apart is that it appears they want to be seen. Most commercial vessels over 300 tons are required to broadcast [automatic identification system] AIS for collision avoidance, but military and law enforcement vessels have discretion about when and where to do so,” the AMTI noted.
“CCG vessels elsewhere in the South China Sea often do not broadcast AIS or do so only when entering and leaving port. But those patrolling Luconia Shoals, Second Thomas Shoal, and, to a lesser degree, Scarborough Shoal appear to broadcast far more frequently,” it added.
The AMTI said there was at least one ship broadcasting from Luconia on 258 of the last 365 days, one at Second Thomas on 215 days, and from Scarborough for 162 days.
The vessels patrolling Luconia, Second Thomas (Ayungin Shoal), and Scarborough (Panatag Shoal) most often belong to the Shicha II and Zhaolai classes.
The AMTI also reported that China’s Shicha II-class Haijing 3308 has been patrolling Luconia, Second Thomas, and Scarborough in the past year based on its AIS signal. This ship is one of the CCG vessels that have been harassing a drilling rig operating for Vietnamese oil and gas in the South China Sea, since June.
The ship also made use of the Chinese port facilities at Subi Reef, one of the “big three” islands in the Spratlys, between patrols.
“This patrol pattern highlights an important CCG objective in the South China Sea — to create a routine, highly-visible Chinese presence at key sites over which Beijing claims sovereignty but does not have any permanent facilities,” the AMTI said.
It also noted that CCG vessels frequently broadcast AIS while patrolling Scarborough, but not as consistently as they do at Second Thomas and Luconia.
“This may be because, unlike those other reefs which are effectively administered by the Philippines and Malaysia, China is firmly in control of Scarborough,” the AMTI said.
The AMTI pointed out that China appears to be wagering that if it can maintain a semi-permanent CCG presence for long enough, regional states will eventually accede to its de facto control of those areas.
“And if that strategy succeeds at Luconia and Second Thomas (as it arguably already has at Scarborough), it will serve as a compelling blueprint for extending Chinese administration across other reefs and shoals,” it further said.