China’s growing naval and paramilitary might receives daily attention. But what of China’s emerging role as a provider of capacity to coastal states in the Indo-Pacific?
Improving their maritime domain awareness has traditionally been the preserve of the “Quad” countries: the US, Japan, Australia, and India. That includes the donation of vessels and equipment to civilian maritime law enforcement agencies and navies in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the South Pacific. Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines are all repeat recipients.
Beijing has adopted a cautious approach towards capacity building in the maritime domain. China has mostly directed its regional contributions at improved maritime safety, providing navigational aids and surveillance equipment, usually on a bilateral basis and on a modest scale.
Beijing has been reluctant to gift vessels or engage in naval capacity building. Timor-Leste acquired two patrol vessels from China in 2010, but these were purchased. Myanmar and Malaysia have bought Chinese warships off the shelf.
Now Beijing appears to be stepping up its maritime capacity-building efforts. China recently donated a warship to Sri Lanka’s navy. Although details remain sketchy (the “frigate” may in fact be a corvette), the move was quickly interpreted as Beijing’s “latest effort to boost its military influence in the Indo-Pacific region”. According to one Chinese commentator, “India has donated armaments to South Asian countries, including warships to Sri Lanka. Why cannot China do the same?”
It was further reported recently that China will transfer a “surveillance and hydrographic” vessel to Fiji later this year. That will worry Canberra, as Australia is the predominant provider of maritime capacity to Pacific island nations via a $2 billion Pacific Maritime Security Program, including 21 new patrol boats (and aerial surveillance) in the pipeline, set to replace those already gifted as sovereign assets across the region.
It is no surprise that Beijing has stepped into the capacity-building influence game. Given the country’s prodigious shipbuilding capacity, the availability of new or retired vessels is no issue. The question was not “if”, but “when”.
The latest beneficiary of Chinese largesse is none other than the Philippines, an interesting choice not only because it has received surplus vessels from the US and Japan, but also because it remains embroiled in a tense territorial dispute with China. That is, despite the efforts of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to curry favour with Beijing while talking down the US–Philippines alliance.
The Philippine Navy has already received four vessels donated by China. This apparently fulfils a 2016 promise by China to deliver “fast boats” as part of an arms package to the Duterte government.
Although described as “offshore patrol vessels”, pictures reveal them to be modest craft, just 12 metres long. They appear suited for riverine or inter-island work, but will do little to improve capacity where it really counts, in the South China or Sulu-Celebes Seas.
Sri Lanka may be a different proposition, but China’s vessel donation to the Philippines does more to advertise China’s limitations as a capacity provider than demonstrate its potential. The Duterte administration will no doubt thank Beijing profusely for its donation. Privately, however, the Philippine Navy is nonplussed, and has earmarked the patrol craft for out-of-the-way duties in Cebu after they have been security checked.
Token capacity-building gestures aside, the Philippine armed forces have bigger fish to fry, being on the receiving end of renewed threatening behaviour from Beijing in the South China Sea, including inflammatory warnings to its pilots and an intensifying encroachmentin the Spratly Islands that has rattled Manila into reinforcing the features that it occupies, for fear of outright aggression from China.
None of this means that the so-called “traditional” providers of maritime security capacity-building can afford to rest on their laurels. Many potential recipients of Chinese vessels are not as conflicted as the Philippines. Sri Lanka and Fiji will be joined by others before long. The Quad countries must make it a priority to coordinate, and if necessary to deconflict, their capacity-building efforts, mindful of Chinese competition on the horizon.
Japan and Australia are lifting their game. But the US, in particular, needs to do more. US capacity building in the Indo-Pacific is dwarfed by resources that continue to flow to the Middle East, despite the former’s designation by Secretary of Defense James Mattis as Washington’s “priority theatre”.
Astonishingly, Congress appears set to halve its appropriation for the flagship Maritime Security Initiative, under which most regional US capacity-building efforts fall. Faced with such flagging commitment, China will find it easier to fill the void, even with lukewarm recipients.
Euan Graham is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.