Chinese Patrol Boat Bound for Hawaii
By Corey Wallace
SNA (Auckland) — If all goes well, one of China’s largest and most advanced patrol boats, the Haixun 31, should arrive in Hawaii on September 4 for cooperative exercises with the United States Coast Guard to “strengthen mutual understanding.” This will be the first time a Chinese patrol ship with helicopter-carrying capacity will dock in the United States.
The China Daily reports that the five-day visit by the Maritime Safety Administration vessel, which displaces 3000 tons, is one of the outcomes identified in the May US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue joint statement and will involve a series of maritime cooperation exercises and consultations on maritime safety issues; and will also include a field test of joint search-and-rescues. The trip is not a short one—4,400 nautical miles—and it will be the first time that the Chinese have had a helicopter on a patrol ship for a voyage for this long. The ship will be open to the American public for one day during the visit.
The Haixun 31 has an interesting history. It first came to wider attention in the middle of 2011 when, amidst tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam over South China Sea issues, it was quickly deployed from the Chinese mainland to Singapore, where it symbolically passed near the Paracel and Spratly island groups which are at the heart of China’s disputes with those nations. During this voyage it had the mission of patrolling China’s territorial waters, in addition to carrying out “inspections of foreign vessels anchored or operating in waters claimed by China.”
State-affiliated media organizations stated that the boat was going to “protect China’s sovereignty.”
While it accepted the ship as part of its normal protocol, the normally neutral Singapore asked China to clarify its broader intentions over the South China Sea. That such a deployment came in the middle of Chinese naval exercises and concern about China’s first aircraft carrier was seen by some as a sign of increasing Chinese maritime aggressiveness.
China is also in the process of deploying a large number of such vessels across the five different civilian agencies charged with maritime patrol activities and monitoring.
Additionally, the Haixun 31 itself may be being ‘retired’ from active duty in favor of more robust vessels. In early August, China launched its largest and most advanced patrol vessel, the Haixun 01. The new Haixun is almost twice the size in terms of displacement, faster, and has much greater endurance as well as onboard emergency medical and surgery facilities. This represents an advance over the Haixun 31 and further bulking up of China’s maritime presence.
Nevertheless the Haixun 31’s visit to the United States should ultimately be seen in a positive light. The seeming contradiction of China sending the Haixun 31 as part of a goodwill mission to the Hawaii is not as stark as it might seem, given that it is a ship that is one of a type accused of harassing foreign ships in the South China Sea, including US surveillance vessels.
Japan for example has over the last decade very skillfully upgraded and used the Japan Coast Guard to do double duty, whether it is in terms of patrolling maritime zones, including in disputed territorial zones, or in the conduct of diplomatic outreach.
Ships from civilian agencies, with their much reduced levels of firepower compared to traditional military vessels, are increasingly being used in situations that may easily escalate diplomatic tensions or where a direct military presence could otherwise be seen as provocative. Additionally, since such ships belong to organizations where maritime crime fighting rather than territorial “defense” is the explicit mission, they are useful tools of diplomatic engagement, even between countries where military engagements are a sensitive issue.
Corey Wallace is a contributing writer to the Shingetsu News Agency focusing on politics and security in the Asia-Pacific.