COLUMN | Heading for a showdown in the South China Sea? [Naval Gazing]

A China Coast Guard ship (background) sails near the Philippine Coast Guard multi-role response vessel BRP Capones during the latter's patrol at Scarborough Shoal, 124 nautical miles west of Zambales province in the northwestern Philippines on March 2, 2022. (Photo: Philippine Coast Guard)

Tensions around the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) have been on a rising curve since China’s de facto annexation of Mischief Reef in 1995. The reef now features a number of Chinese military installations, while at least 26 additional islets in the two groups have also been garrisoned by Beijing.

The Chinese claim most of the SCS. Beijing has ignored the 2016 ruling UN-recognised Permanent Court of Arbitration that no single nation has a valid claim to the SCS, and that none of the above-surface features in the sea could be classified as islands. Recent years have nonetheless seen increasingly intensive activity in the sea by patrol ships of the China Coast Guard (CCG).

Manila hardens its stance

Recent incidents have included close-quarters confrontation between a Philippine Navy (PN) warship and a CCG patrol ship, attempts by CCG vessels to interfere with vessels conveying supplies to a Philippine Marine Corps garrison, and the pointing of a laser beam from a CCG patrol ship towards a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel.

In recent months, after years of relative passivity by the Philippines over often aggressive CCG forays into the nation’s EEZ, Manila has assumed a more proactive stance. Since coming to power in May 2022. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has greatly boosted relations between Manila and Washington, while simultaneously sending multiple protests to Beijing over the incursions.

Marcos has also directed intensified patrolling by the PCG’s Parola-class and Teresa Magbanua-class multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) and regular surveillance flights by coast guard surveillance aircraft. The PCG now maintains a well-publicised daily photographic plot of Chinese vessels operating within the Philippines’ EEZ.

Philippine bases for US forces

Of particular significance, though, is the agreement recently reached that will allow US military forces to access an additional five Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) installations situated in Palawan, Zambales, Isabela, and Cagayan provinces on a rotational basis. US forces already have such access to five other Philippine bases.

Little has been revealed about the intended use of these facilities, many of which are strategically well-situated in relation to the SCS. Analysts believe that they will provide opportunities for sustained surface and aerial surveillance, electronic intelligence gathering, and rapid response operations in support of Philippine forces.

Also, Manila is in talks with Washington and Canberra over the establishment of tripartite patrols in the SCS. There has long been speculation that Washington will deploy US Coast Guard assets to the region. Australia, however, does not have an equivalent service, so presumably Royal Australian Navy warships would have to be deployed.

China Coast Guard and Maritime Militia operations

Incursions continue apace, and tensions therefore remain high. In addition to the operations of CCG vessels, large numbers of “fishing vessels” of the paramilitary, semi-covert China Maritime Militia habitually lurk in the vicinity of Philippine-occupied islets in the SCS. One recent estimate put the number of Chinese government-linked vessels active in the sea at any time at more than 300.

A development that is causing additional concern in the Philippines and elsewhere is the commissioning into the CCG of 24 former People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships (22 Type 056 corvettes and two Type 053H frigates). These ships have been stripped of their missile and 76-milimetre naval gun armament but retain a warship profile complete with a helicopter flight deck and a fixed 30-milimetre cannon. These new CCG assets represent a substantial escalation of the intimidatory capability of the CCG.

Both Manila and Beijing have so far relied mainly upon their paramilitary maritime forces to back up their claims in the SCS. The CCG is a politically powerful organisation that boasts some 150 operational deep-sea capable vessels, a myriad of smaller craft, and numerous aircraft.

With foreign especially Japanese assistance, the PCG has considerably bolstered its capabilities, and more new assets are in the pipeline, but the service still has nothing approaching the heft of the CCG.

If the hardening of Manila’s position does lead to a further escalation of tensions, it is conceivable that the huge and still-growing PLAN fleet could become involved. The PN has been greatly modernised and now includes missile-armed frigates and fast attack craft (FAC). The FACs can operate offshore or based on board PN landing ships.

The PN still lacks the numbers and equipment to effectively face up to the PLAN and would therefore very likely request assistance from allies in the event of serious escalation. Turbulent times could therefore well lie ahead in the SCS.

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.