COLUMN | Standing up to China: tensions mount in Asian waters [Naval Gazing]

A PLAN Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock vessel enters the Torres Strait on February 18, 2022. (Photo: Australian Government)

For many years, paramilitary patrol ships of the China Coast Guard (CCG) and its predecessor, China Maritime Surveillance, usually lightly-armed, but often with the reinforced hulls which are essential for ramming tactics, have been in the vanguard of Beijing’s headlong maritime expansionism.

The CCG is commissioning more combat-capable vessels and the 2020 introduction of a new law gave legal backing to CCG enforcement action against foreign vessels “incurring” into Chinese-claimed waters.

The already-large CCG inventory is now being augmented by ex-People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 056A corvettes. These 1,500-tonne vessels have very limited ant-submarine capabilities and are therefore surplus to naval requirements.

The corvettes are having their missile launchers and torpedo tubes removed but are retaining their 76-millimetre guns and 30-millimetre cannon. Large LED display screens, to convey visual warnings to what Beijing considers to be intruding vessels, are being installed on port and starboard sides of their superstructures.

Recent Chinese naval movements off Taiwan and Japan

The PLAN, for its part, recently assumed a more prominent role in pursuit of China’s maritime ambitions. PLAN warships, including its two aircraft carriers, have transited the Taiwan Strait in force in concert with mass incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Information Zone by warplanes of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

The growing numbers of warships of various nations operating in and near the South China Sea are routinely shadowed by PLAN vessels. For instance, surface escorts of the British Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group (CSG), which during 2021 exercised in Asian waters, detected multiple submerged Shang-class submarines in its vicinity.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning underway some 160 kilometres off Miyakojima in Okinawa prefecture on April 26, 2021 (Photo: Japanese Ministry of Defence)

CCG patrol ships, now virtually a permanent fixture around the Japanese-claimed Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, are sometimes augmented by PLAN surface warships and submarines. A PLAN task group, headed by the aircraft carrier Liaoning, has voyaged between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa.

The PLAN is now routinely conducting proactive operations well beyond the South China Sea and these days maintains a lurking presence off eastern Taiwan by deploying warships East and South of the Japanese-claimed Nansei (Ryuku) islands in the western Pacific.

The extension of China’s naval reach was underscored by an incident on February 17, 2022. Two PLAN warships, the Type 052D destroyer Hefei and the Type 071 landing platform dock Jinggangshan, were detected operating in the Arafura Sea some 90 kilometres off the Australian coast within Australia’s EEZ. The destroyer shone a laser light at a patrolling Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A Poseidon aircraft in what is an aggressive and potentially dangerous act.

The diplomatic fallout from this incident continues.

Responses by US, partners

The US Navy maintains a steady drumbeat of Freedom of Navigation transits through the SCS.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s relentless push for dominance of Asia’s seaways has proved to be a catalyst for the ongoing radical upgrades of Asian maritime forces, notably those of Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Additional vessels, both new and secondhand, are being commissioned, and ships’ fixed armaments are being enhanced. Regional exercises with American and other foreign warships are increasingly frequent.

Washington has increased its naval presence, maintaining two carrier strike groups in the region, while warships from the UK, France, Germany, India, Japan, and the Netherlands have deployed to the region in the past year. Washington and Tokyo have planned a response to any possible aggressive moves by China around the Nansei islands, including the rapid deployment of US Marine Corps anti-shipping missile systems to the islands.

Particularly significant, though, is the formation of what has become known as “The Quad”, which is a flexible naval alliance between Australia, the US, Japan, and India. A high-level quadrilateral conference, held in Melbourne early this year, raised the profile of this arrangement. Quad exercises are gaining momentum, and in April 2021, warships from a French task group took part in a joint exercise with Quad assets in the Indian Ocean.

There is little doubt that the years ahead will see tensions continue to rise in Asian waters, particularly as Beijing will probably seek to take advantage of the current concentration of western military minds upon the situation in Ukraine.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.