Beijing’s nonnavy boats in South China Sea stoke concern of U.S. 7th Fleet commander


China’s increased reliance on nonnaval ships to assert its claims in the South China Sea is complicating U.S. efforts to avoid a clash in the disputed waters, according to 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin.

While the U.S. and Chinese navies are working more closely under an agreed code for unplanned encounters at sea, the deployment of coast guard and other nonnaval vessels in the area is “a concern of mine,” Aucoin told reporters Monday in Singapore. He plans to take the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the 7th Fleet, to China later in the summer.

“We have all types of senior level engagements with the Chinese PLAN, that we meet pretty routinely,” Aucoin said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. He said he had a “greater fear” about other actors, “whether it’s coast guard or what we refer to as white shipping or cabbage ships, not sure about their professionalism.”

Aucoin’s comments came ahead of a two-day summit in California between President Barack Obama and leaders from Southeast Asian nations, as the U.S. seeks to build a unified approach to China’s growing military clout. Southeast Asian countries generally welcome China’s investment and economic muscle, even as some have expressed concern about its expanding naval reach.

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with fellow claimants including Vietnam and the Philippines in a body of water that annually hosts $5 trillion in shipping. In the past two years, China has reclaimed more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) in the sea and is building military facilities there. It has also made greater use of fishing and maritime surveillance boats to warn off other vessels in the area, blurring the lines between its navy and coast guard.

Last month the U.S. sent a warship into waters contested by China, Vietnam and Taiwan to challenge the “excessive” maritime claims of all three. It was the second time in less than six months the U.S. has challenged China with a so-called freedom-of-navigation operation. During the first operation by the USS Lassen, where it passed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands chain, it was shadowed and warned by Chinese boats — including nonnaval vessels.

“During the Lassen one it was apparent that they were being controlled, that they weren’t operating independently, and that is something that is in our calculus now,” Aucoin said of the Chinese boats. “How do we approach that when it is not gray hull versus another gray hull, it’s other types of ships. I think we’ll see more of that in the future.”

Chinese navy commander Adm. Wu Shengli said in January that China had no plans to militarize the South China Sea. Still, the country would “never be defenseless,” Wu said. The degree of defensive facilities depends on how much China is under threat, he said.

The U.S.’s 7th Fleet has patrolled Asia’s waters since World War II. Its coverage area extends from Japan to India.

Aucoin said there were no formal talks to bring coast guards under the code for unplanned encounters at sea. “I know I am asking our coast guard to become more involved, to help us with these types of operations because it’s not simply gray hulls anymore,” he said. “I think having a code of conduct that would cover them would be a good thing.”

China has nearly finished a giant coast guard ship and will probably deploy it armed with machine guns and shells in the South China Sea, the Global Times reported in January, 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.

China’s so-called white-hulled fleet previously involved ships armed at most with water canon and sirens. The ship now under construction is larger than some of the U.S. naval vessels that patrol the area.

It will be the second of China’s mega-cutters, which are the largest coast guard vessels 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 Beijing calls the Diaoyus.

The country also said in January it had successfully completed test flights of civilian aircraft to a new airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, drawing protests from countries including Vietnam. Aucoin said flying fighter aircraft out of the area would have a destabilizing effect and could prompt a U.S. response.

“They do have an operational airfield but I don’t know when they will start flying fighter-type aircraft out of there,” Aucoin said. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits, and that includes flying over that airspace.”

He called for greater transparency from China on its intentions generally in the South China Sea. “I think that would relieve some of the angst that we are now seeing, that we are unsure where they are taking this,” Aucoin said. “What has made China powerful, great, is being able to operate through these waters. We just want them to respect those rights so that we can all continue to prosper.”