As we look at the growth of China at sea, are we a bit too focused on the "hard power" of a Fleet of warships, and not the "soft power" of just being there?
There is something to be said for a persistent presence & the precedent it sets.
It has been over three years since China made the drastic, but failed, attempt of ordering the U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship, USNS Impeccable, to leave the South China sea. The order ratcheted tensions between the US and China but resulted in little more than political volleys being thrown between the two countries. China has not given up however on claiming almost the entire body of water as their own, demarcating their claims within what is known as the nine-dotted line. A line which overlaps the borders of virtually every other country in the region.
Worries extend not only over the larger nation’s diplomatic claims over the region – claims in which China argues span centuries of maritime history – but in China’s increasing military strength in the region. At the heart of the problem is the aggressive newbuild strategy of the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency, a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency created on 19 October 1998 under the auspices of China’s State Oceanic Administration and responsible for law enforcement within the territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and shores of the People’s Republic Of China.
The CMS fleet has the proven audacity and speed to harass vessels of sizes ranging from small fishing boats to the 281 foot (85.78 m) USNS Impeccable, but unarmed fixed structures may be the primary target. Agency vessels are keeping a close eye on offshore oil and gas structures in the region and, in March of this year, CMS issued a press release citing the successful surveillance of “illegal exploration of oil and gas fields” in the South China Sea. The fields in question are located off the coast of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), a group of uninhabited islands Japan claimed following a 1969 UN survey which reported likely oil and gas reserves in their adjacent waters.
The question on the minds of mariners transiting the region is “What’s next”. Only time will provide the answer but it is clear that China has definate plans for the future. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, CMS is currently planing to have 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by the end of 2015, and more than 15,000 personnel by 2020 the possibility, the fleet will have the capability to conduct close surveillance missions throughout the South China Sea. The telegraph also claims the maritime surveillance forces logged the transit of 1,303 foreign ships and 214 planes in 2010, up from a total of 110 vessels tracked in 2007. “The logical next step is actively monitoring those 1,300 vessels” said on US Navy expert who did not want to be named. ” With 350 vessels, a number approaching the entire US Navy operational fleet, they will have the capability to both track and escort a majority of ships transiting the region.”
UPDATE: Regular Midrats guest James Holmes over at TheDiplomat is smelling something as well. Well worth the read.