China fleet blurs line between navy and coast guard with giant new floating fortress



China has nearly finished a giant coast guard ship and will probably deploy it armed with machine guns and shells in the disputed South China Sea, the Global Times reported, dubbing the vessel “The Beast.”

China Coast Guard vessel 3901, with a 12,000 ton displacement, will carry 76 mm rapid-fire guns, two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft machine guns, the paper reported, citing unidentified people and photos posted on the Internet.

It will be the second of China’s mega-cutters that are the largest in the world, according to the Global Times. A similar boat entered service last year in the East China Sea, where China is separately involved in a territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which are known in China as the Diaoyu.

The vessels show the increasingly blurred lines between China’s coast guard and its navy and may complicate efforts by nations such as the U.S. to prevent the territorial disputes in the South China Sea — one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes — from sparking clashes at sea.

China is beefing up the weapons carried by its so-called white-hulled fleet, which previously involved ships armed at most with water canon and sirens, according to Ryan Martinson, a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. The ship now under construction is larger than some of the U.S. naval vessels that patrol the area, and may pose a challenge for the Pentagon on how to respond.

“U.S. naval commanders now must prepare for the possibility of testy encounters with Chinese mega-cutters on the high seas in peacetime, when their advanced weapons systems will do them little good,” Martinson wrote in a June report predicting the deployment of the new ship. “This is an uncomfortable prospect given that China’s mega-cutters are larger than most U.S. surface combatants.”

The USS Lassen, which the U.S. employed last year on a freedom of navigation operation to challenge China’s claims to artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which typically displace about 9,700 tons. Coast guard ships are not required to adhere to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea agreed between the U.S. and Chinese navies in April 2014.

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has described China’s use of its coast guard as a “gray area” that needs to be countered in a creative way that stops short of hostilities, according to a report in Navy Times. China’s assertions to 80 percent of the South China Sea clash with five other nations.

The hull number gives a clue as to where the new ship will be deployed, according to Collin Koh Swee Lean, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Numbers starting with two are assigned to the East China Sea branch of the coast guard, and those starting with three tend to head to the South China Sea.

The CCG 3901 has a helicopter platform and hangar in the stern capable of transporting heavy helicopters, the Global Times reported. It also dwarfs the two biggest vessels in the Japanese coast guard, which displace 6,500 tons and were until recently the world’s largest coast guard ships, according to Martinson’s report.

“In the type of missions China’s coast guard is asked to perform, ship size is a key determinant of capability,” Martinson wrote. “When there is a major size disparity, the larger ship can simply drive others away.”

China’s coast guard has also converted former naval frigates for civilian use and one of them patrolled within the 12-mile exclusion zone that Japan claims around the uninhabited Senkakus in the East China Sea. Another armed guard ship entered Japanese waters on Jan. 8, according to Japan’s coast guard.