Tensions building in the South China Sea

SOUTH CHINA SEA ( - The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group transits in formation with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group in the South China Sea April 9, 2021. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) are conducting expeditionary strike force operations during their deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (Photo: US Navy/Seaman Faith McCollum)

Tensions have been escalating in the South China Sea (SCS) in recent weeks, as Beijing tests the resolve of new US President Joe Biden by ramping up activity in pursuit of its claims to most of the sea and the islets within it. A lead player in this activity has been, unusually, the China Maritime Militia (CMM), rather than the China Coast Guard.

Beijing has for some years been placing increasing emphasis upon this semi-covert paramilitary force. A large number of steel-built, blue-hulled, powerful CMM “fishing vessels” have been constructed, many on Hainan Island.

The CMM recruits both fishermen and ex-military personnel. Duties include surveillance, intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and deception missions, and the blockading of sea areas claimed by Beijing.

Late March saw more than 200 CMM craft rafted up off Whitsun Reef/Julian Felipe Reef, situated about 175 nautical miles west of the Philippine island province of Palawan, and within the Philippines’ EEZ. Beijing claimed that they were genuine fishing vessels, sheltering from adverse weather.

Following protests from Manila, the CMM vessels began to disperse, but Philippine Air Force reconnaissance flights confirmed that many of them had subsequently taken up positions near at least five other Philippine-claimed islets.

Two PLA Navy Type 22 fast attack craft later harassed a Philippine vessel carrying journalists in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal/Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys.

There have been no reports of any action by the Philippine Navy, but other forces were quick to respond. The US Navy has moved both the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, its escorts, and an amphibious warfare task group, headed by the landing platform helicopter (LPH) Makin Island into the SCS. Warplanes from the carrier carried out exercises with Royal Malaysian Air Force planes.

A Vietnamese People’s Navy Gepard-class frigate and a Ka-32 helicopter have meanwhile carried out a high profile anti-submarine exercise in the SCS.

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (Photo: Japanese Ministry of Defence)

Elsewhere in the region, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escorts have transited the Miyako Strait between Okinawa and Taiwan, before entering the Taiwan Strait. The US Navy destroyer John S. McCain, for its part, has carried out a freedom of navigation operation through the Taiwan Strait, attracting the usual protests from Beijing.

There have, furthermore, been very recent reports of intense Chinese drone activity over Taiwan-occupied Pratas Reef.

UK and French-led Task Groups are due to deploy to the region in the near future, with freedom of navigation operations reportedly on their agendas. It therefore seems that the scene is set for a summer of high tension in and around the SCS.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.