China’s expansion of “Regular Rights Defense Patrols” in the South China Sea: a map, courtesy of CCTVPosted: September 4, 2014
One of the key aspects of the PRC’s assertive maritime policy in recent years has been the increasing presence of Chinese law enforcement vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea. While the actions of white-hulled government boats in specific incidents have been the subject of debate, authorities on all sides agree that China has greatly expanded the frequency of its patrols there. A video report from a CCTV correspondent embedded with a China Marine Surveillance “regular rights defense patrol” in 2012 reveals the route of the patrol, helping shed light on this core element of China’s approach in the South China Sea.
First, it is crucial to point out that, in contrast to many Fisheries Law Enforcement vessels, China Marine Surveillance’s patrol ships always lacked any kind of heavy weaponry such as deck-mounted guns (though they do keep caches of rifles below deck). Rather than being, as Captain James Fanell memorably termed it, a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization, CMS’s routine “rights defense law enforcement 维权执法” activities were limited to filming the activities of rival claimants, and proclaiming Chinese jurisdiction over two-way radio (not to mention CMS’s many more innocuous responsibilities such as preventing illegal land reclamation, rubbish disposal, and coastal environmental management). Most or all of the on-water clashes the agency was involved in from 2007 until its subsumption into the new China Coast Guard in 2013, appear to have been ad-hoc “special operations 专项行动” and not part of its normal range of responsibilities.
Nonetheless, it is likely that CMS’s “regular rights defense patrols” (定期维权巡航) from 2007 onwards contributed a great deal to regional perceptions of an assertive shift in Chinese policy in the South China Sea. As a prominent researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told me last year, “of course other countries felt uncomfortable” when China’s big new ships started appearing in the disputed areas.
“Regular rights defense patrols” commenced on July 20, 2006 in the East China Sea, meaning that CMS started maintaining a minimum presence of six law enforcement vessels and four aircraft flights each day. On February 1, 2007, CMS extended its “regular rights defense patrol” area to the Yellow Sea and northern part of the South China Sea, and again nine months later to include the southern part of the South China Sea. Thus, by December 2007, the “regular rights defense patrol” system now, at least in theory, covered all of “the 3 million square kilometres of waters under China’s administration.”
In practice, as CMS South Sea Branch Director Li Lixin explained in 2009, the CMS fleet was “only capable of doing normal surveillance of the northern part of the SCS, and cannot completely cover the central and southern parts.” Li said his branch maintained two patrol boats in the South China Sea at all times, but that with only 11 ships and 3 helicopters it was impossible to cover the central and southern parts.
But by 2012, the rollout of new patrol ships and refurbished PLA vessels had enabled this expansion of the regular rights defense patrol system out to the full extent of the nine-dash line. In April 2012 a CCTV journalist accompanied the CMS South Sea Branch a 12-day, 2700km voyage through the South China Sea. This was already the 9th rights defense patrol of the year, and the fleet was made up of four large new cutters: the 3000-ton class Haijian-83 (now Haijing-3383), and 1000-ton class Haijian-71 (3171), Haijian-84 (3184) and Haijian-66 (2166). The latter two had both been commissioned in 2011, and all four were the product of a major CMS shipbuilding program approved in 2000 by Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao.
The CCTV report was particularly notable because it revealed the route of this regular rights defense patrol: from the Guangzhou home port to Sanya, then the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin, across to the southwestern Paracels (scene of the HYSY-981 oil drilling rig this year), down the Vietnamese coast “following the nine-dash line” (see screencap at the top of this post), all the way to just north of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. From there, the fleet cuts across to somewhere around James Shoal, and then turns northeast, apparently still hugging the line, before turning left and navigating through the “foreign-occupied” Spratlys. The last glimpse of the route shows it heading in the direction of Scarborough Shoal, though this is not mentioned.
Here’s my rough approximation of the overall route, pieced together from the screencaps that follow. The dotted lines indicate parts that aren’t actually visible in the video:
Taken together, all this illustrates how China progressively extended its routine on-water presence out to the maximum extent of the nine-dash line between 2006 and 2012, using a newly-constructed fleet of ostensibly unarmed cutters. Armed fisheries law enforcement vessels, meanwhile, were cracking down on Vietnamese fishing in the Paracels and, as Scott Bentley has detailed, assertively defending Chinese fishing boats from foreign “harassment” near the extremes of the nine-dash line.
But in comparison to CMS’s systematic expansion, the China’s fisheries operations were piecemeal, perhaps due to its small and ageing fleet: in 2012 the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command’s three national-level regions had a total of only 16 ships displacing 300 tons or more, most of which were more than a decade old. As CMS South Sea Rights Defense Law Enforcement Detachment official Pang Hailong explained in another CCTV documentary, a lack of weaponry meant CMS could “show up more in sensitive areas of water” whilst maintaining the country’s diplomatic “flexibility.”
Perhaps most importantly, the CMS expansion was directly enabled by State Council decisions taken back in 2000. The wheels for this crucial element of China’s “assertive turn” were thus set in motion a long time before those gleaming white hulls started appearing on the disputed horizons.
 Note: Haijian-66, now Haijing-2166 belongs to the CMS East Sea Fleet. The fact that it was patrolling in the South China Sea suggests the rollout of regular South China Sea patrols was a priority until the Diaoyu crisis in September 2012. At that point the roles were reversed, with CMS ships from all three national-level fleets, plus regional bureaus, called in to help ramp up China’s on-water presence in the East China Sea.