Beijing’s ‘White Hull’ Challenge in the South China Sea
Maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas are often seen as synonymous with the region’s rapid and well-documented naval buildup. It is only in recent years, however, that civilian maritime law enforcement (CMLE) forces have emerged into the picture. While world attention remains focused on the proliferation of high-powered, ‘big ticket’ naval capabilities such as submarines and anti-ship missiles, a CMLE competition amongst claimant states in those maritime flashpoints is rapidly growing. The implications of this competition are wide-ranging insofar as peace and stability in those disputed waters are concerned.
For this reason, a recent buildup by the China Coast Guard (CCG; Zhongguo Haijing) deserves attention. Chinese sources indicate what appears to be the second of its giant offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) nearing the stage of induction earlier this month. Bearing the hull number 3901, this cutter was photographed fitting out in a shipyard. It has earlier been seen conducting various harbor and sea trials. Once fitting out is complete, 3901 will be formally commissioned.
In fact, Haijing 3901 is not alien to those familiar with the CCG buildup. It is the second unit following the lead ship, 2901, which has already completed fitting out and has been assigned to the East China Sea Branch. When sketchy information (including the first pictures of it under construction) emerged in January 2014 of what was then said to be a “monster” OPV, it caused quite a bit of excitement. Its physical size—estimated by Chinese sources to displace between 10,000 and 12,000 tons full-load—trumps Japan Coast Guard’s Shikishima class, built in the early 1990s and which displaces 6,500 tons, as the world’s largest CMLE ship. Equally amazing is the rate of construction, considering 2901 and 3901 would be inducted within a small time gap.
‘Megalocutter’ Coming to the South China Sea?
As a rule, CCG ships do not bear names, unlike PLA Navy surface ships. They are typically referred to by hull numbers (with a prefix denoting their organizations; for example, Haijing 3901) which reflect the unit/locality and technical specifications of the particular ship in service. Hull numbering come in four or five digits and may have nuanced differences, especially for operational security reasons; or if the intended numbers coincide with pre-existing ones.
For those with four-digit hull numbers, the first digit usually refers to one of the three CCG branches. “1” denotes the North Sea Branch; “2” the East China Sea Branch and “3” the South China Sea Branch. For vessels bearing five-digit hull numbers the first two digits denotes their locality. For example, for vessel 31239—the first armed CCG ship that appeared off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands disputed with Japan in late December last year—“31” refers to Shanghai, where the ship is stationed. The second digit is usually the ship’s displacement; for example, “0” refers to a displacement of less than 1000 tons, and so on. The final two digits denote the unit built in the series, or the last two digits of the particular ship’s previous hull number prior to transfer from another service. Again using the example of Haijing 31239, the final two digits “39” takes after the former hull number 539 in previous navy service.
The first oceangoing Chinese CMLE ship deployed to the South China Sea was the 3,000-ton Haixun 31 of the separate China Maritime Safety Administration in April 2009. For a period, this was the largest Chinese cutter operating in the area.
It was not until March 2013 that the Chinese finally upped the ante in the South China Sea by deploying the 5,000-ton Yuzheng 312, which is a former PLA Navy tanker. Subsequently, in January 2014 Beijing mulled permanently stationing a patrol ship of at least 5,000 tons at the newly-created Sansha City on Hainan Island, and this coincided with an announcement that China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation is planning to build a 10,000-ton vessel for the CCG.
The new Haijing 3901 now becomes, by far, the largest cutter to be built for the CCG South China Sea Branch. It also dwarfs all other types of CMLE vessels that rival claimants in the disputed waters can field in terms of size, including the Vietnam Coast Guard’s 90-meter, 2,500-ton DN-2000—a modified OPV-9014 design from Dutch shipbuilder Damen, which is built locally in the affiliated Song Thu Shipyard.
Should this development constitute a cause for concern?
Are ‘White Hulls’ Destabilizing?