The China Coast Guard (CCG) has for some years been at the apex of concerns for strategists surveying the Asia-Pacific landscape and especially the complex South China Sea dispute. China’s extensive force of cutters, labeled last year by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence as the world’s largest coast guard, has been active at various points of dispute from the Scarborough Shoals standoff between Beijing and Manila in 2012 to the “Exploration Rig 981” crisis between Beijing and Hanoi off the Paracels during spring 2014. These ever larger “white hulls” have been interpreted as the “tip of the spear” for Beijing’s new maritime strategy, an evolution that is discussed openly in certain Chinese strategic analyses.
According to conventional Western interpretations, the CCG has developed the requisite tonnage, range, communications and organization to show the flag, push around fishermen from neighboring countries, and to employ any and all means to intimidate maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessels from other states as well. Now, Beijing is set to further sharpen that spear. A new cutter, hull number 46301, will shortly be commissioned into the CCG. What makes this particular cutter somewhat remarkable is that it is confirmed to be an MLE version of the Type 054 frigate of the PLA Navy. That class of warship has earned high marks with naval analysts as it wields a potent array of weapons and sensors. Moreover, it has seemed to prove its reliability as the primary workhorse of the PLAN in its now two dozen forays to the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy patrols.
What may be disconcerting to U.S. and allied maritime strategists is not just that this vessel likely takes the CCG to a new level of capabilities, including with respect to armament. More alarming still is the real possibility that these new ships may form a reserve naval force in that these ships are most likely designed to become genuine warships on relatively short notice. Indeed, a graphic from the August 2016 Chinese naval magazine, Naval & Merchant Ships [舰船知识], that illustrates the Type 818 design in considerable detail, asserts in the caption “… in war time, this vessel has the hidden capability to be rapidly configured into a frigate.” [在战时该舰具有快速改装成为护卫舰的潜力]. The graphic offers the following characteristics for this class of ship: 134 meters in length, 15 meters at the beam, 3900 tons, and with a maximum speed of 27 knots. The ship is armed with a 76mm main gun, two heavy 30mm machine guns, four high pressure water cannons, and will also wield a Z-9 helicopter.
In the same issue of this magazine, published by the major Chinese shipbuilding conglomerate China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), builder of the Type 818, there is not coincidentally a very detailed article about U.S. Coast Guard cutters in combat during the Second World War. That article explains that both USCGC Campbell and also USCGC Spencer were able to sink German U-boats (U-606 and U-175 respectively) during the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic. Most of the article examines the operations of 10 American USCG cutters that were 76.2 meters in length and built between 1928 and 1932. These ships were transferred to the hard pressed Royal Navy (RN) during 1941-42 and achieved an enviable war record in RN service, sinking both U-522 and U-954 – the latter with Germany Navy Commander Karl Donitz’s son aboard. The analysis notes that, according to UK naval records, the American cutters were viewed so favorably as to be rated as “surpassing each kind of comparable British designed frigate.” These ships are labeled as an “ideal anti-submarine escort ship” [理想的反潜护航舰] and the implications for the CCG going forward are obvious.
A July 2016 article (and related graphics) appearing in the magazine Modern Ships [现代舰船], published by the other large shipbuilding conglomerate China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), offers some further details and explanation regarding the new class of cutters, including that a contract for four Type 818s had been signed back in December 2013. This article observes that the main gun and fire control system are identical for Type 818 and Type 054A. The article credits Admiral Yin Zhuo (ret.) for developing the idea back in 2010, when he asserted that it was not cost effective to send warships with missiles, air defense radars, electronic countermeasures, etc. to battle pirates. Out of this impulse to develop more lightly armed ships for constabulary duties apparently evolved the concept of a shared hull design for both frigate and cutter. But this study notes more than once that since the cutter’s foredeck will have substantial reserve space, therefore, during a period of heightened international tensions, “installation of a vertical launch system (VLS) will not be a problem.” The electrical system could be upgraded, an air search radar added, and both passive and active sonar systems put in place, as well as a towed sonar array system. Likewise, the 30mm guns could be removed and replaced with a close in weapons system (CIWS).
Just over five years ago, I observed in another publication: “one recent line drawing of a fisheries enforcement cutter, refit for wartime duty, shows the cutter equipped with an ASW helicopter, ASW torpedoes and a towed array sonar.” In another piece from that time, I pointed out the “creeping militarization” of Chinese MLE forces. Now, that process seems to be nearly complete and the older picture of Chinese cutters that were unarmed and poorly organized appears to be a quaint reverie from the past. Indeed, a CCG that can, within a few months, transform into a genuine naval fighting force is set to further increase concerns about Chinese maritime strategy. After all, in the grueling world of escort versus submarine, the numbers game matters a great deal and more vessels (particularly those that might not quite justify a US torpedo) could help China tip the balance.
On the other hand, China is hardly the first maritime power to deploy its coast guard as a reserve naval force. Indeed, the US and also Japan have led the way in these practices. Instead of confrontational approaches that drive China to further militarize maritime disputes, the U.S. and its allies would be wiser to view an enlarged and more global CCG as a potential partner in bringing “good order at sea” to all the world’s oceans, including especially in the ever vital domain of search and rescue, as well as the now urgent imperative for oceanic environmental protection.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
Image: People’s Liberation Army Navy type 054A frigate. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Simon Yang