China Coast Guard Deploys “Monster” Vessel to Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone

On May 24th, the China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel, a Zhaotou-class patrol cutter called the Haijing-5901, briefly entered the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and sailed near Scarborough Shoal. Another, smaller CCG vessel also accompanied the Zhaotou-class vessel during the intrusion. The Zhaotou-class vessel is notable because it is the largest coast guard ship in the world.

May 24th Intrusion and Philippines Response

The CCG vessels entered the Philippines’ EEZ and conducted a brief patrol inside the area around 5:15 a.m. local time. The ships were reportedly seen 58 miles (92 kilometers) west of the Scarborough Shoal. Vessel 5901 was accompanied by a 335-foot (102-meter) CCG vessel 5203 during the voyage. The vessels then exited the EEZ a few hours later. As of May 27th, both vessels were near Hainan Island.

Automated Identification System track of CCG vessels 5901 and 5203 as they enter the Philippines EEZ and traveled near Scarborough Shoal (Photo: X, @GordianKnotRay)

The Philippines responded to the CCG vessels’ intrusion by issuing comments through the country’s navy spokesperson for the South China Sea (SCS). Philippine Navy (PN) Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad gave a brief interview during the PN’s 126th anniversary in the capital city of Manila. Trinidad said that the Philippines would give “an appropriate response” from the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). While he did not give any specifics, Trinidad said the response “would be taken most likely” by the Philippine Coast Guard because the intrusion was conducted by the CCG.

Trinidad also said the PN is still verifying reports that China is building pipe work in Scarborough Shoal’s lagoon. He said that the navy is treating the initial report from Philippine fishermen “as unverified or unsubstantiated” and that the navy is currently thinking of the pipe work “as of now.” Trinidad also said the PN is still trying to corroborate the report regarding the pipework.

On May 24th, the Philippine organization Atin Ito held a press conference where they discussed the pipework construction at the shoal. The team leader of the Atin Ito convoy advance boat during the May 16th mission to the shoal, Mark Figueras, specifically discussed the alleged pipework. He said that the fishermen could go between 164 and 328 feet (50 and 100 meters) to Scarborough Shoal before the construction of the pipework inside the low-tide elevation started last month. Figueras said that fishermen are now “no longer allowed there because there has been an activity inside” the shoal. Furthermore, he said that the CCG is “guarding the area “because there are pipes being laid out in the middle of the Bajo de Masinloc [Scarborough Shoal].”

Zhaotou-class Patrol Cutter

China began construction of the Zhaotou-class vessels at Jiangnan Shipyard around 2012. Jiangnan Shipyard also designed the vessels. The Zhaotou-class vessels gained the nickname “monsters” because they are considered the biggest coast guard cutters in the world. China built the vessels as part of its modernization of the CCG and to increase its ability to enforce its claims in both the East China and South China Seas.

The vessels are approximately 541 feet long (165 meters), have a beam of at least 66 feet (20 meters), and have a full displacement of 12,000 tons (10,886 metric tons). The vessels’ total displacement is at least 33 percent heavier than the United States’ Ticonderoga-class Guided Missile Cruisers or Arleigh Burke-class Guided Missile Destroyers. The class also has a total displacement of at least 33 percent heavier than the Japanese Coast Guard’s Shikishima-class large patrol cutters.

In terms of armaments, the Zhaotou-class cutters are armed with a H/PJ-26 76mm naval gun, two 30mm autocannons that act in an auxiliary gun role, and two anti-aircraft heavy machineguns. The vessels can also mount water cannons onto their hulls for less than lethal use against other coast guard vessels and fishing vessels. The vessels have a range of between 10,000 and 15,000 nautical miles (18,520 and 27,780 kilometers) and a top speed of 25 knots (46 kph). The ships have a large hanger located in their stern that can accommodate two Z-8, Z-9, or Z-20 medium-utility helicopters or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. They also have a large helipad that allows helicopters to take off and land.

Analysis

The intrusion by the monster vessel near the Scarborough Shoal is part of China’s campaign to intimidate the Philippines into not pressing its claims on the feature. The alleged pipework inside the lagoon points to China attempting to prevent Philippine fishermen from entering the lagoon. The May 24th intrusion is the first time that China deployed the Zhaotou-class near the Scarborough Shoal and into the Philippines’ EEZ. The deployment is another part of China’s campaign to prevent the Philippines from continuing to conduct maritime patrols and civilian convoys to the feature. For example, China usually deploys the vessels near Vanguard Bank, which is located in Vietnam’s EEZ. China deploys the monsters to dissuade Vietnam from continuing to develop and operate the natural gas and oil fields that are located near the bank. The vessel would normally loiter and slowly move around the various oil platforms in the area while a Vietnamese fisheries and maritime enforcement boat monitored it. China would likely conduct similar voyages at Scarborough Shoal, and the May 24th deployment was likely to see how the Philippines would respond to the vessel’s deployment.

China also chose to send the Zhaotou-class vessel to conduct the intrusion mission to increase pressure against the Philippines in the leadup to the CCG’s new regulations that will allow it to detain trespassers. The Philippines understands that its coast guard would face severe limitations in responding to the cutters since they have no vessels with similar capabilities. For example, the PCG vessels would have difficulty responding to the Haijing because they are significantly larger than any vessel in the PCG inventory. The PCG vessels’ lack of similar weapons to the Haijing is another issue. For example, the PCG does not have a vessel in its inventory with a 76mm cannon like the monster. The Haijing’s firepower allows the CCG to effectively control the area of Scarborough Shoal due to the coast guard’s inability to contest the vessel’s presence. Furthermore, it would also place the Philippines at a disadvantage if it were to escort civilian convoys to the shoal to demonstrate the country’s sovereignty over the feature.

Both the firepower and size disadvantages would likely force the Philippines to use PN vessels to monitor the Haijing since they would be larger and have similar armament. However, the deployment would allow China to use the narrative that the Philippines is increasing tensions at the shoal by deploying naval vessels. The Philippines could deploy Philippine Air Force (PAF) aircraft to monitor the vessel during its intrusion missions around Scarborough Shoal. However, the aircraft would be limited in conducting aerial reconnaissance due to the short time they would have to monitor the area. While the PAF could conduct aerial surveillance with multiple aircraft, this option would be impractical due to the increased maintenance each aircraft would require.

The pipework that China is allegedly building will prevent Philippine fishermen from entering the lagoon to fish and gather shellfish. The barrier would also have a gate that the CCG would use to control who could enter the shoal’s lagoon. China could use the barrier as another surveillance measure that would complement the other ways the country monitors the feature. However, the pipework would present limitations regarding how effectively China can monitor the PCG vessels and Philippine fishermen at or near the lagoon. Alternatively, the pipework could be the framework for China to build an outpost to cement its claim over Scarborough Shoal. This would allow China to deny the Philippines the ability to enter the lagoon while also creating a permanent presence.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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