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China Sends World's Largest Coast Guard Cutter to "Intimidate" Philippines

CCG 5901
CCG 5901 near Sabina Shoal (PCG)

Published Jul 8, 2024 11:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The China Coast Guard recently deployed one of its two supersized cutters to a position inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone, drawing international attention and adding to preexisting tensions between Manila and Beijing. It is one of several unusual Chinese deployments in the South China Sea, including a large-scale carrier exercise near the Paracel Islands. 

The "monster" vessel, CCG-5901, is tied with its sister ship for the title of largest coast guard cutter in the world, weighing in with a cruiser-sized displacement of 12,000 tonnes. By comparison, the U.S. Coast Guard's Legend-class National Security Cutter looks relatively small, displacing just 4,500 tonnes.

CCG-5901 departed Hainan Island on July 1, and it transited directly to Second Thomas Shoal, the main flashpoint site in the Spratly Islands. The reef is occupied by a small Philippine military garrison, stationed aboard the wreck of the grounded tank landing ship BRP Sierra Madre. After departing Second Thomas Shoal, the Chinese mega-cutter took a short transit to Sabina Shoal, about 30 nautical miles to the east. It dropped anchor and remained in the area for two days. It is common enough for Chinese government vessels to loiter in this region, where they are well-positioned to interfere with Philippine supply shipments to the outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, but CCG-5901 chose to anchor within 800 yards of the Philippine Coast Guard cutter BRP Teresa Magbanua. While modern, the Magbanua is just a fifth of the size of CCG-5901. 

"It’s an intimidation on the part of the China Coast Guard," Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tariella told Reuters on Saturday. 

The area is part of the Philippine EEZ, and Tariella reiterated that the PCG will not retreat from Manila's internationally-recognized maritime boundaries. (China insists that the western Philippine exclusive economic zone is Chinese sovereign territory, including Second Thomas Shoal and other land features; in 2016, its claims were dismissed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which found that China's assertions had no basis in international law.)

Last week, China's PLA Navy also deployed a carrier strike group with an amphibious component for an exercise near the Paracel Islands. The Chinese-build CNS Shandong carried out maneuvers along with a Type 075 amphibious assault vessel, two extra-large Type 055 destroyers, and four other vessels, according to open-source analysts. The Type 075 is a Chinese analogue of the U.S. Navy's "big deck" Wasp-class amphibs, which are comparable to helicopter carriers in size and function.