24 May 2016

Shepherds of the South Seas

Be sure to read in full this superb, path-breaking article by my CMSI colleague Ryan Martinson. For analysis of Chinese maritime policy and China Coast Guard development, it simply doesn’t get any better than this!

Ryan D. Martinson, “Shepherds of the South Seas,” Survival 58.3 (2016): 187-212.

Escort operations by unarmed or lightly armed law-enforcement ships are an integral, but under-studied, part of China’s strategy to advance the country’s position in its maritime disputes.
On 21 July 2014, a Chinese law-enforcement ship, YZ 32501, arrived at its home port in Nantong, Jiangsu. As its crew disembarked, they were received by a senior officer from the China Coast Guard, who had travelled from Shanghai for the event. He thanked them for their 80 days of ‘continuous combat’ in the South China Sea.
Eighty days was a long deployment for a ship of this size (just 500 tonnes). Indeed, the vessel had no obvious mandate to operate in the South China Sea: its primary mission is to manage fisheries in areas under the jurisdiction of Jiangsu province, far to the north. But it had been urgently pressed into action in remote waters – and not to protect fish.
During its weeks in the South China Sea, YZ 32501 conducted a type of operation called huhang, or ‘escort’. Traditionally, escort missions are performed by naval forces. British, Canadian and American surface combatants, for instance, escorted merchant ships across the North Atlantic during the Second World War, protecting them from the depredations of German submarines. The warships of numerous countries, including China, shepherd civilian vessels transiting through the Gulf of Aden, protecting them from Somali pirates.
However, unarmed or lightly armed Chinese maritime law-enforcement ships also perform escort missions. Their flocks are not vessels using the ocean as an avenue of transportation, but ships and platforms seeking to exploit it as a source of economic wealth. These include Chinese fishing trawlers, seismic-survey ships and, in the case of YZ 32501, a billion-dollar drilling rig named Haiyang Shiyou (HYSY) 981. These operations, which largely take place in the South China Sea, are an integral, but under-studied, part of China’s strategy to advance the country’s position in its maritime disputes.

The huhang in strategic context

China claims jurisdiction over nearly two million square kilometres of maritime space in the South China Sea. Much of this is contested by other states. To advance its position vis-à-vis other claimants, China encourages Chinese civilians to use disputed waters for economic purposes. The function of the huhang is to create a secure environment that enables civilian use of the ocean to take place. …

Ryan D. Martinson, “The 13th Five-Year Plan: A New Chapter in China’s Maritime Transformation,” Jamestown China Brief, 12 January 2016. 

Ryan D. Martinson, “Deciphering China’s Armed Intrusion Near the Senkaku Islands,” The Diplomat, 11 January 2016.  

Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability,” The National Interest, 11 September 2015.

Ryan D. Martinson, “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard,” a paper for the China as a “Maritime Power” Conference, CNA Corporation, Arlington, VA, 28-29 July 2015.

Ryan D. Martinson, “East Asian Security in the Age of the Chinese Mega-Cutter,” Center for International Maritime Security, 3 July 2015. 

 Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141.4 (April 2015). 

Ryan D. Martinson, “Jinglue Haiyang: The Naval Implications of Xi Jinping’s New Strategic Concept,” Jamestown China Brief  (9 January 2015).

Ryan D. Martinson, “Chinese Maritime Activism: Strategy Or Vagary?” The Diplomat, 18 December 2014. 

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, 21 November 2014. 

Ryan Martinson, “Here Comes China’s Great White Fleet,” The National Interest, 1 October 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Power to the Provinces: The Devolution of China’s Maritime Rights Protection,” Jamestown China Brief 14.17 (10 September 2014). 


Ryan D. Martinson is research administrator in the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views represented in these articles are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.