Here Comes China’s Great White Fleet

China’s "rights protection fleet" has grown tremendously in recent years. That could mean trouble in the East and South China Seas.

On the afternoon of September 17, 2014 the 1750-ton maritime law enforcement cutter CMS 7008 officially entered service with the Zhejiang province China Marine Surveillance (CMS) contingent.  State-run Xinhua News Agency covered the event in a brief online article, the tone and content of which have become very familiar in recent years.  Aside from listing the ship’s length, beam, displacement, range, speed, cost and other basic facts, the article cites the comments of two CMS officers regarding the advanced features of the new ship.  CMS 7008, we learn, is equipped with a pair of special water cannons—purchased abroad for the extravagant sum of 1.3 million RMB (~$210,000)—capable of sending a jet of saltwater out to 200 meters and a noisemaking device that induces nausea in those within 100 meters of its sound path, giving it a “certain deterrent effect.”  To anybody reading the article, it is clear that this ship was designed to put to sea to confront foreigners.  

CMS 7008 is just the latest vessel to join what may usefully be called China’s rights protection fleet.  This fleet includes all of the large displacement (>500 tons) ships, owned and operated by China’s local and national maritime law enforcement agencies and deployed to uphold China’s maritime claims.  By now, their roles are very well known.  Scarborough Shoal and HYSY 981 have become bywords for increasing Chinese assertiveness at sea.  Generally unarmed or lightly armed, they conduct what Christian Le Miere calls “paragunboat diplomacy.”  Missions range from symbolic presence at sea to forcibly expelling foreign vessels from Chinese-claimed waters and screening China’s own incursions.  Rights protection cutters often operate under the protective umbrella of the PLA Navy; but even when the grey hulls are far away they enjoy the special charms that come with representing a powerful state.  Victims of their harassment include both the mighty and the weak.

China’s rights protection fleet has grown tremendously in recent years.  Those who follow China know this.  But seldom are the numbers spelled out.  By my count, China has added 52 new rights protection cutters since Scarborough Shoal.  Many of these ships were the products of earlier building programs coming to fruition.  For example, in fall 2010 China announced plans to build 36 new large-displacement CMS cutters, to be owned and operated by China’s coastal provinces and provincial-level cities.  The first of these ships, the 1,600 ton CMS 8002, reached the fleet in February 2013.  By the end of 2014, most will have been delivered to their owners.    

Other decisions to augment the fleet came after Scarborough Shoal.  In late 2012, desperately needing ships to reinforce new footholds in the East and South China Seas, Chinese policymakers decided to transfer 11 large-displacement PLA Navy ships to CMS units.  Most of these are now fully integrated and active in their respective units.  Also in 2012, CMS signed the first of a series of contracts to build very large displacement ships (3,000-5,000 tons), ships capable of remaining at sea for long periods of time, ships comfortable in all kinds of weather, ships especially suited for intimidating foreign mariners.  The first of these began reaching the fleet in early 2014.  By the end of this year, six of these giants will have entered service, with many others waiting to be launched.  The addition of oceangoing ships, some new, some PLA Navy transfers, to the local and national units of China’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Commission (FLEC) also helped fill out the fleet, including, most recently, FLEC 45005 and FLEC 45013, 1,764-ton sister ships owned and operated by Guangxi Province.   

The reason why these facts are important is because there is a direct relationship between rights protection ship numbers and China’s capacity to pursue expansionary policies in maritime East Asia.  And the latter is very much on people’s minds.

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