Building Regional Response to Chinese Naval Build-up

The Indonesian Offshore Patrol Vessel KN Pulau Dana
The Indonesian Offshore Patrol Vessel KN Pulau Dana (323) steaming alongside the Japan Coast Guard vessel, Echigo PLN-08. (Bakamla)

Individual nations around the South China Sea, while not being able to match China’s maritime strength, are trying to add to, and modernise, their own capabilities.

The ability of countries with maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS) to respond to the activities of the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) is limited. Naval forces in the South East Asian region have seen little in the way of investment until recently and their collective inventory of ships is dwarfed by that fielded by China.

By force of numbers the CCG and CMM can sustain a constant presence in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the rival SCS claimant states forcing their navies to respond by sending their own ships. But sustaining such a high tempo of deployments causes significant wear and tear on the ships sent by the SE Asian navies and also has an impact on their training activities and reduces long-term availability of vessels as the amount maintenance and support work needed increases.

However, the main SCS claimants including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have acknowledged the scale of the problem. They are introducing new patrol ships into service that will help their respective fleets manage the pressure and allow an increase in naval presence improving the ability to push back against Beijing’s attempts at coercion.

In recent years the Philippines has been under the most pressure where confrontations at sea have become more frequent and dangerous. There have been stand-offs between the CCG and the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) in the Spratly Islands in the Second Thomas Shoal where the Philippine Marine Corp (PMC) occupies a grounded transport ship, BRP Sierra Madre, as a forward monitoring station. There have also been incidents at Reed Bank where Manila plans to drill for oil and at fishing grounds near Whitsun Reef.

The Philippines has increased defence spending in the last couple of years and has recently commissioned two new Jose Rizal-class frigates built in South Korea by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) into the Philippines Navy (PN). This will give some space to allow its smaller units to focus on EEZ protection and coastal patrol. Later in 2023, the PN’s Littoral Combat Force (LCF) is taking delivery of two additional second-hand 328 ton Cyclone-class patrol boats, formerly operated by the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The USN decommissioned USS Monsoon (PC 4) and USS Chinook (PC 9) and transferred them to the PN in April 2023 and are completing a refit before entering service.

The Philippines Coast Guard Gener Tinangag
The Philippines Coast Guard Gener Tinangag (PG-905) and the Domingo Deluana (PG-905). (Philippines Navy)

In addition, the PN is receiving nine new 95 ton 105 foot (32 metre) Shaldag-class MkV fast patrol boats (FPBs) from Israel Shipyards that will meet the PN’s need for a new Fast Attack Interdiction Craft – Missile (FAIC-M). Named the Acero-class, the first pair were delivered in September 2022 and named BRP Nestor Acero (PG901) and BRP Lolinato To-ong (PG902). A second pair was received in April 2023. The weapons outfit on the MkV FPBs includes the Rafael Typhoon and mini-Typhoon remote weapon stations with four expected to be fitted with the Spike Non-Line of Sight anti-ship missile.

There are also plans to procure a second Pohang-class corvette from the Republic of Korea Navy to add to the first that was delivered in 2019. Furthermore, Manila signed a $50 million contract with HHI for two new corvettes.

Vietnam is the only SCS country that has been in a war with China. Because of this history – a Chinese invasion of the north of Vietnam for three weeks in 1979 – it has developed more capable defence platforms and it has increased the size of its navy over the past two decades with the procurement of fast attack craft and submarines from Russia.

Hanoi’s more recent dispute with China in the SCS is centred on the Nam Con Son Oil drilling project in the Vanguard Bank where the CCG has conducted constant patrols since at least 2020.

In mid-2022 the Vietnam Border Force took delivery of 12 35m-long high speed patrol boats from Indian shipyard Larsen & Toubro and Vietnamese shipyard Hong Ha Shipbuilding. They were built jointly under a $100 million contract awarded to L&T in 2016 using the company’s design for its patrol boats built for the Indian Coast Guard.

The previous year on 14 August 2021 the Vietnam Coast Guard received a second ex-US Coast Guard Cutter, ex-John Midgett, re-named as CSB-8021 under Excess Defense Articles transfer. It adds to an earlier Hamilton-class cutter, CSB-8020, that was delivered in 2017. The transfer of a third cutter has been approved by the US. Meanwhile the People’s Army of Vietnam Navy (PAVN) is planning to procure a third pair of Gepard-class light frigates from Russia.

CSB 8021
CSB 8021 is the former USCG ship John Midgett departing Apra Harbour in Guam on its way to Vietnam in new colours and renamed CBS 8021 for transfer to the Vietnam Coast Guard. (US Embassy)

Malaysia has been less forthright in its objections to Chinese encroachment on its EEZ and SCS claims but since 2016 the Royal Malaysian Navy has been trying to implement its ’15-to-5’ modernisation programme. Ironically four new 700 ton Keris-class Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) were built by China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and delivered from 2018-2022 under the programmes are used for patrolling the Malaysian EEZ in the SCS.

However, although a total of 18 LMS are planned, Malaysia has decided to change supplier and is looking for a second batch of eight ships that have a higher military specification and capability for its sensors and weapons payload. Boustead Heavy Industries Corporation (BHIC) is reportedly offering a new variant of the LMS to meet the RMN’s new requirements. The 15-to-5 programme also envisages a larger number of corvettes for the RMN.

Royal Malaysian Navy
One of the four Keris-class littoral mission ships manufactured in China and delivered to the Royal Malaysian Navy between 2018-2022. (Royal Malaysian Navy)

Meanwhile the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) is expecting to receive the first of three new 83m-long 2,600 ton Tun Fatimah-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) from TH Heavy Engineering and Destini later this year. Deliveries were supposed to have started in 2020 but there have been significant delays. The OPVs will be used for patrolling Malaysia’s Kasawari oil development off the coast of Sarawak in East Malaysia.

Elsewhere, China’s harassment of Indonesian oil drilling activities only started relatively late in 2021 at the Tuna Block oilfield in the North Natuna Sea. The Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) and Coast Guard (Bakamla) were already in a process of modernisation but this has reinforced the urgency of acquiring new platforms and replacing older ships. Whilst the TNI-AL is getting new frigates and submarines the Bakamla uses a fleet of just 10 OPVs and patrol ships to conduct monitoring and constabulary operations across Indonesia’s extensive maritime zones.

Newer Bakamla ships include the 110m, 2,400 ton OPV KN Tanjung Datu (1101) that was built by PT Palindo and commissioned in 2018 and three 80m-long patrol ships designed by Terafulk Megantara and delivered in 2019. All four are helicopter-capable and some Bakamla vessels are also being upgraded with UAS and improved communications systems to enhance monitoring capabilities.

Despite these efforts at procuring additional patrol ships and offshore patrols vessels, the South East Asian countries will not be able to provide the kind of sustained presence at sea that China is able to afford. However, despite the activities of the PLAN, CCG and CMM, Beijing has not achieved any political gains through its grey zone attempts at coercion merely serving to damage relations with its southern neighbours. More ships are very important for monitoring countries’ EEZs in the SCS but ultimately it is outside political pressure on China that will make the difference convincing Beijing to change its ways.

by Tim Fish