2012-06-20 (forbes.com and by gCaptain) — It has been over three years since China made the drastic, but failed, attempt of ordering the U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship, USNS Impeccable, to leave the South China sea. The order ratcheted tensions between the US and China but resulted in little more than political volleys being thrown between the two countries. China has not given up however on claiming almost the entire body of water as their own, demarcating their claims within what is known as the nine-dotted line. A line which overlaps the borders of virtually every other country in the region.
Rather, they have turned their attention from military to commercial vessels with a Great White Fleet of secret surveillance ships.
Three weeks ago, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs expressed “grave concern” in a statement to the Chinese Embassy after a fleet of Chinese vessels around Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground just 123 miles (198 km) west of the former American stronghold of Subic Bay Phillipines and well within that country’s Economic Exclusion Zone, began harassing local boats Tensions increased between the both countries until yesterday when both nations, citing the arrival of typhoon season, ordered the pullback of vessels in the region.
While many local fishermen argued against the pullback, the orders come from the top and carry the weight of their country’s presidential seal. News first appeared over the weekend of Philippines’ president Benigno S. Aquino’s ordered that all Philippine vessels return to port citing the rough seas and heavy rains of three tropical storms which currently surround the island nation. It is hoped that China follows suit and a diplomatic solution for each nations sovereignty claims are found.
“We hope there will continue to be an easing in the situation and hope bilateral cooperation will recover and be safeguarded,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei on Monday.
Some maritime experts in the region believe however, that tensions will again escalate after the menacing typhoons disappear.
Worries extend not only over the larger nation’s diplomatic claims over the region – claims in which China argues span centuries of maritime history – but in China’s increasing military strength in the region. At the heart of the problem is the aggressive newbuild strategy of the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency, a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency created on 19 October 1998 under the auspices of China’s State Oceanic Administration and responsible for law enforcement within the territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and shores of the People’s Republic Of China.
Does history repeat itself?
Painted white with the English words, “China Marine Surveillance” emblazoned in tall blue letters across the sides of their hulls, the vessels being built for CMS are reminiscent of the great battleships built by the United States at the turn of the last century. Those ships, were painted gleaming white to represent the peacetime stance of America’s naval power, but color aside, the primary purpose of those vessels were to enforce the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed the United States to “exercise international policy power” and keep smaller countries on their feet. The vessels, later referred to as America’s Great White Fleet, also served to enforce America’s claim over foreign territories won in the Spanish American War. Territories which included the Philippines.
CMS’s ships approximate the size Roosevelt’s battleships – the largest being just 20 meters shorter in length than the dreadnought USS Carolina, but they are by no means modern battlewagons capable of projecting military might. Rather, the ships are lightly armed law enforcement vessels that, without external armament, look less intimidating than a US Coast Guard coastal patrol ship.
While the CM ships are relatively small, between 78 and 98 meters in length, and may be only lightly armed, they are certainly enough to intimidate fishing vessels and may prove effective in future actions against larger targets.