China Coast Guard ships’ operations in the South China Sea in 2022
Photo: Reuters.

What does the report conclude?

The report titled “China Coast Guard Patrol in the South China Sea 2022”[1] analyzes the presence of China's coast guard near Second Thomas Shoal, Luconia Shoals, Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Shoal, Vanguard Bank, and Thitu Island via satellite data (AIS) from MarineTraffic.

According to the report, in the South China Sea, the Chinese coast guard patrols the five abovementioned features most frequently, with increasing frequency compared to 2020: from 287 to 344 days at Scarborough/Huangyan Shoal from 279 to 316 days in Luconia; from 142 to 310 days in Vanguard Bank (more than 100%); from 232 to 279 days at Second Thomas Shoal.

In addition, the report also contains a paragraph about the "harassment" activities by Chinese coast guard, such as coordinating with militia ships at Second Thomas Shoal, cutting Philippine ship cables near Thitu, preventing oil and gas activities and resupply operations of Philippines at sea and so on. The report then concludes that the increasing presence of the Chinese coast guard makes future confrontations "inevitable". However, the report says that the number of Chinese Coast Guard’s aggressions around drilling rigs of Southeast Asian countries in 2022 would decrease, possibly because some countries (except Indonesia) have withdrawn due to the pressure from China.

Possible further observation from the same data set

Using the same data source, we can draw many other observations about the trend of Chinese coast guard ships’ patrols that the report has not mentioned. Regarding frequency, China has at least one coast guard ship patrolling at the abovementioned five points almost every day. Regarding location, Scarborough/Huangyan Shoal is the area with the highest concentration of coast guard ships, both in terms of days and ships. Vanguard Bank is a place where there were many patrols lasting 1-2 months (some scholars suppose that Vanguard Bank can be considered a "stopover" for coast guard ships[2]). Pertaining to tools, ships’ number at Scarborough/Huangyan Shoal all start with "3" (indicating the same division), while ships’ numbers at other features usually start with "5", belonging to division 5 which is responsible for assisting all three sea areas of China (Beihai, Donghai and Nanhai). As a result, the number 5 ships are more flexible (5203 or 5305 are used to patrol multiple features). Notably, the Coast Guard ship number 5901 was not focused by the report despite its being the largest law enforcement ship in the world and having appeared for more than a month in Thi Tu. As of January 2023[3], it was still entering the overlapping EEZs of Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is also important to note that the report's figures can only reflect one part of the reality. Firstly, the AIS signal source is limited, easily tampered with, or turned off. It is possible that China has more coast guard ships but registered as cargo vessels (such as the Dujuae mentioned in the report). Secondly, the South China Sea has many other features that are not covered by the report. Thirdly, it is unexclusive that these coast guard ships do not conduct patrols but other activities as well.

China’s “Grey Zone” tactics are becoming more prominent?

Besides civilian ships and survey ships, coast guard is a part of the "triad" of tools to implement China's "gray zone" tactics on the ground. In the South China Sea, these forces are able to coordinate smoothly. If combined with AMTI's September 2022 report on Chinese militia[4], we can see that the frequency of militia activities in Scarborough/Huangyan and Second Thomas Shoal is relatively low, but that in Thitu is relatively high. Meanwhile, the frequency of activities of the coast guard at Huangyan and Second Thomas Shoal is high, but that at Thi Tu is lower. In addition, some sources said that these forces have jointly conducted an intercept with Philippine military ships near Reed Bank[5] or protected the HD8 survey ship when entering Vietnam's EEZ[6].

In the East China Sea, data from Japan’s official sources shows that the Chinese coast guard appears in the vicinity of Senkaku/Diaoyu with increasing frequency, especially since China introduced the new coast guard law[7] (159 days in 2018, 282 days in 2019 and 330 days from 2020). The longest operating time of a Coast Guard vessel in the waters around Senkaku is up to 64 hours 17 minutes[8]. These ships also approached, tailed, and chased away[9] Japanese fishing boats[10] or brought 76-millimeter cannon when approaching the area near the disputed islands[11]. This may be China's signals towards Japan against the backdrop that the Japanese government is adjusting its security policy in a stronger direction (increasing defense spending, moving towards supporting military operations beyond its borders, and engaging more deeply in regional maritime security).

It is possible that China will increase the frequency of its coast guard operations on a large scale for a variety of reasons. First, China tends to invest heavily in defense and law enforcement budgets[12], at the same time coordinating the military and law enforcement. In recent years, China has improved the legal basis to expand the scope of operations of its coast guard[13]. Second, the activities of the coast guard of other countries to respond are limited: the United States is unlikely to conduct law enforcement activities in the East and Northeast China seas often because these areas are not high seas (international waters); the capacity of the Philippines or Japanese coast guard is not strong enough compared to China.

In general, the data provided by CSIS does not fully reflect the full picture of Chinese ships' operations in the South China Sea but can indicate somepatterns such as focusing on some large features; increasing the frequency of long-term patrols; and fostering coordination between the coast guard and other forces to deploy "gray-zone" presences in disputed areas.

Hoàng Hà

The article only reflects the author’s personal perspective.














The article is originally published here

Translated by Nguyen Tien Dat

Revised by HD, Ngan Do