U.S. Concerned by Non-Navy Chinese Boats in South China Sea



China’s increased reliance on non-naval ships to assert its claims in the South China Sea is complicating U.S. efforts to avoid a clash in the disputed waters, according to 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin.

While the U.S. and Chinese navies are working more closely under an agreed code for unplanned encounters at sea, the deployment of coast guard and other non-naval vessels in the area is “a concern of mine,” Aucoin told reporters on Monday in Singapore. He plans to take the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the 7th Fleet, to China later in the summer.

“We have all types of senior level engagements with the Chinese PLAN, that we meet pretty routinely,” Aucoin said, referring to China’s navy. He said he had a “greater fear” about other actors, “whether it’s coast guard or what we refer to as white shipping or cabbage ships, not sure about their professionalism.”

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin

Aucoin made his comments hours before a two-day summit in California between President Barack Obama and leaders from Southeast Asian nations, as the U.S. seeks to build a unified approach to China’s growing military clout. Southeast Asian countries generally welcome China’s investment and economic muscle, even as some have expressed concern about its expanding naval reach.

“Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means,” Obama said in his welcoming address at the  estate in California on Monday.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel (R) passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 (L) in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam June 13, 2014. REUTERS/Nguyen Minh

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with fellow claimants including Vietnam and the Philippines in a body of water that annually hosts $5 trillion in shipping. In the past two years, China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres in the Spratly archipelago east of the Philippines and is building military facilities there.

New Construction

China is also building on features in the Paracel islands to the north east of the Spratlys, according to images posted on The Diplomat website last week. They showed dredging and filling at two new sites in the Chinese-held island chain. China has made greater use of fishing and maritime surveillance boats to warn off other vessels in the area, blurring the lines between its navy and coast guard.

Last month the U.S. sent a warship into waters contested by China, Vietnam and Taiwan to challenge the “excessive” maritime claims of all three. It was the second time in less than six months the U.S. has challenged China with a freedom-of-navigation voyage. During the first operation by the USS Lassen, where it passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly island chain, it was shadowed and warned by Chinese boats including non-naval vessels.

‘Being Controlled’

“During the Lassen one it was apparent that they were being controlled, that they weren’t operating independently, and that is something that is in our calculus now,” Aucoin said of the Chinese boats. “How do we approach that when it is not gray hull versus another gray hull, it’s other types of ships. I think we’ll see more of that in the future.”

Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli said in January that China had no plans to militarize the South China Sea. Still, the country would “never be defenseless,” Wu said. The degree of defensive facilities depends on how much China is under threat, he said.

The U.S.’s 7th Fleet has patrolled Asia’s waters since World War II. Its coverage area extends from Japan to India.

Aucoin said there were no formal talks to bring coast guards under the code for unplanned encounters at sea. “I know I am asking our coast guard to become more involved, to help us with these types of operations because it’s not simply gray hulls anymore,” he said. “I think having a code of conduct that would cover them would be a good thing.”

China has nearly finished a giant coast guard ship and will probably deploy it armed with machine guns and shells in the South China Sea, the Global Times reported in January, dubbing the vessel “The Beast.” China Coast Guard vessel 3901, with a 12,000-ton displacement, will carry 76 millimeter rapid fire guns, two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft machine guns, the paper reported.

China Coast Guard 3901, with a displacement of 12,000 tons, is armed with one 76-millimeter naval cannon, two close-range defense guns and two anti-aircraft guns. China daily photo

China’s so-called white-hulled fleet previously involved ships armed at most with water canon and sirens. The ship now under construction is larger than some of the U.S. naval vessels that patrol the area.

It will be the second of China’s mega-cutters, which are the largest coast guard vessels in the world, according to the Global Times. A similar boat entered service last year in the East China Sea, where China is separately involved in a territorial dispute with Japan.

The country also said in January it had successfully completed test flights of civilian aircraft to a new airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, drawing protests from countries including Vietnam. Aucoin said flying fighter aircraft out of the area would have a destabilizing effect and could prompt a U.S. response.

“They do have an operational airfield but I don’t know when they will start flying fighter-type aircraft out of there,” Aucoin said. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits, and that includes flying over that airspace.”

He called for greater transparency from China on its intentions generally in the South China Sea. “I think that would relieve some of the angst that we are now seeing, that we are unsure where they are taking this,” Aucoin said. “What has made China powerful, great, is being able to operate through these waters. We just want them to respect those rights so that we can all continue to prosper.”



 (By Mark J. Valencia)


Part of China’s fishing fleet

Anti-China protest in the Philippines


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