China Coast Guard Launches Destroyer-Based Cutter
A ruling on South China Sea maritime claims is expected within months from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, and all parties concerned are making preparations for the outcome, which is widely expected to go against Chinese interests.
The Philippines are perhaps most affected: China has engaged in an island-building campaign on reefs and shoals which are also claimed by the island nation, and may soon begin construction on additional facilities at Scarborough Shoal, which China occupied in 2012. Newly elected Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has expressed varying stances on China's extensive “nine-dash line” claims and on the appropriate means of negotiation – but on Thursday, he issued an unambiguous statement on Chinese expansion. "There will never be an instance that we will surrender our right over Scarborough Shoal," he told a news conference. "That is not a territorial issue. It is an issue about being obstructed or impeded because of the constructions there and we cannot exercise freely the rights under UNCLOS of the 200-mile economic zone that is exclusive to us," he said. But he also emphasized that Philippine policy would not hew to the expectations of allies: "We have this pact with the west, but I want everybody to know that we will be charting a course of our own . . . it will be a line that is not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interest," he said at a press event Tuesday.
The U.S. has been providing technical assistance and equipment transfers to the Philippines in order to boost the nation's maritime patrol capabilities, and under a recently signed agreement, American military forces will soon have access to Philippine bases for forward staging. At the end of June, Philippine naval forces will also be participating in the biennial “Rim of the Pacific” maneuvers off Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast – joining 26 other nations in the world's largest maritime exercises. The U.S. Third Fleet is hosting the event and expects 25,000 personnel, 45 ships, five submarines and 200 aircraft to participate.
China has noted the American partnership with the Philippines with concern and encouraged the U.S. to remain neutral in South China Sea territorial disputes. "China's development won't threaten any country," said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang on Thursday. "I hope certain people in the United States set themselves straight and spurn Cold War thinking,” he added.
China has increased its military and coast guard presence in the region, with deployment of anti-aircraft missile systems and advanced long-range radar equipment. Elements of its civilian fishing fleet are widely viewed as government proxies, and analysts say that its coast guard vessels increasingly bear resemblance to a naval force. Recently posted photos of a newbuild China Coast Guard cutter at a yard in Guangzhou show that its lines closely match the Chinese navy's 4,000 ton Type 054A frigates. The cutter, hull 46301, lacks the missile and torpedo armament of its naval relatives, and it has a different superstructure – but it retains a large helicopter hangar and the capacity to carry large numbers of personnel. The China Coast Guard already operates corvette-derived patrol vessels, plus the world's largest cutters, the 12,000 ton hulls 2901 and 3901 – larger by displacement than the American Ticonderoga-class cruisers.