Beijing’s ‘monster ship’ the largest coastguard vessel anchored in South China Sea

Beijing’s ‘monster ship’ the largest coastguard vessel anchored in South China Sea

China’s largest coastguard ship, dubbed the “monster ship,” recently anchored in Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, a move the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has described as an act of intimidation. The vessel, measuring 165 meters in length and displacing 12,000 tons, entered the Philippines’ EEZ on July 2, according to Jay Tarriela, a spokesperson for the PCG. The ship’s presence was tracked using Canada’s Dark Vessel Detection technology.

The PCG radio-challenged the Chinese vessel, asking it to confirm its intentions and reminding it that it was operating within the Philippine EEZ. An exclusive economic zone is an area of the ocean beyond a nation’s territorial sea, within which a coastal nation has jurisdiction over both living and nonliving resources. Despite these challenges, the Chinese ship remained anchored at Escoda Shoal for over two consecutive days, maintaining a close proximity of less than 800 yards to a PCG vessel.

Tarriela later stated that the Chinese vessel’s actions were clearly intended as intimidation. “We’re not going to pull out and we’re not going to be intimidated,” he asserted. This incident is part of a broader pattern of maritime run-ins between China and the Philippines, particularly around the Second Thomas Shoal, an atoll located within the Philippine EEZ. China claims sovereignty over the reef and most of the South China Sea, despite a 2016 international tribunal ruling that China’s claims to waters within its “nine-dash line” had no legal basis.

The Philippines grounded a ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, on the reef in 1999 to assert its own claims over the area. However, the Shoal remains a “dangerous flashpoint,” as described by the Brussels-based think tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG). Chinese boats continually attempt to prevent efforts to resupply the grounded ship. Earlier this month, the China Coast Guard blocked a resupply mission using “dangerous and deliberate use of water cannons, ramming, and blocking maneuvers,” according to a statement provided to US Naval Institute News by a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Officials from China and the Philippines met recently and expressed a desire to “rebuild confidence” to better manage maritime disputes. However, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs emphasized that it would be “relentless in protecting its interests and upholding its sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction” in the South China Sea. The ICG noted in May that “relations between the two countries in the maritime domain have never been as volatile as during the last seven months.”

China has been carrying out extensive land reclamation on islands in the South China Sea for over a decade, building airstrips and other military facilities. Despite international criticism and a 2016 ruling by a tribunal in The Hague that found its maritime claims had no legal basis, China maintains that the international waters are all Chinese territory. This has led to increasing tensions between China and the Philippines, as well as other Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam, whose coastguard and fishing vessels have also been harassed by the Chinese coastguard and navy.

The South China Sea is a strategic waterway through which millions of dollars of global trade pass each year. The presence of China’s “monster ship” in the region is seen as a demonstration of overwhelming Chinese naval power. The vessel is three times the size of the United States Coast Guard’s main patrol vessels, the National Security Cutters, and even outsizes US Navy destroyers. Its massive size enables it to intimidate its neighbors while avoiding the escalatory implications of sending a gray-hulled military vessel.

The China Coast Guard is part of the country’s People’s Armed Police, which is under the command of the Central Military Commission. This makes it different from most other coast guard agencies, which are usually assigned to law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations. Analysts say that the primary role of the China Coast Guard, particularly its larger vessels like the “monster ship,” is to serve as a central element in China’s paramilitary maritime force.

Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, noted that the size and crew of the CCG-5901 enable it to be a central command ship for larger operations. He also pointed out that a Chinese navy aircraft carrier was operating near the Philippines in recent weeks, suggesting a coordinated effort to demonstrate Chinese naval power to Manila.

China has both the world’s largest navy, in terms of sheer ship numbers, and the world’s largest coast guard. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the presence of the “monster ship” shows the Chinese military’s ability for “escalation dominance.” He added that the vessel the Philippines had previously sent to Sabina Shoal, the Teresa Magbanua, was one of its best, but the China Coast Guard “doesn’t want to be outdone thus this monster came along to show who’s got a bigger set of muscles.”

The Philippine Coast Guard remains resolute in its stance. “We won’t pull out, and we won’t be intimidated,” Tarriela reiterated. The situation in the South China Sea continues to be a complex and volatile issue, with significant implications for regional security and international maritime law.

Source: CNN, Reuters, US Naval Institute News

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