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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


China and the South China Sea:
What Does ‘Business as Usual’
Mean?
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 10, 2020
We request your assessment of two issues: (1) the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat
in the South China Sea by a China Coast Guard vessel and (2) an update of Chin’s
militarization of its artificial islands in the South China Sea and the construction of new
‘research stations’.
ANSWER:
(1) Sinking of a Vietnamese Fishing Boat
The ramming and sinking of Vietnamese fishing boat QNg 90617 TS on 2 April near
Phu Lam (Woody) island in the Paracels by China Coast Guard vessel no. 4301 is an
example of Chinese standard operating procedures. We know that the China Coast
Guard ships actually practice ramming as part of their regular training routine.
Deliberate ramming is a violation of the International Regulations for Preventing
Collisions at Sea or COLREGS to which China is a signatory. These regulations have
been compared to traffic rules at sea. They stipulate how ships should approach other
ships, pass other ships, give way to other ships, and overtake a ship at sea to avoid
collisions. The Arbitral Tribunal that heard the claims brought by the Philippines
against China ruled in July 2016 that China had violated its responsibility as the flag
state in letting its vessels deliberately ram other ships or manoeuvre in an intimidating
and unsafe manner.
Vietnam and China have provided conflicting accounts of this incident. China claims
the Vietnamese fishing boat deliberately rammed the China Coast Guard vessel. This
seems improbable given the differences in weight and size between the two boats
involved. There is also the fact that China Coast Guard boats are armed. Chinese
personnel invariably video incidents at sea yet China has provided no video evidence
of the incident to back up its claim.
In China’s view, the Vietnamese fishing boat was illegally fishing in China’s waters. It
is my assessment that the boat sinking was a tactical incident caused by the Captain
of the China Coast Guard vessel. Chinese ship captains are never punished for acts of
violence against foreign ships and boats. They can act with impunity when defending
China’s ‘indisputable sovereignty’.
Vietnam’s demand that the matter be investigated, the guilty parties punished, and
compensation paid will fall on deaf Chinese ears.
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The China Coast Guard 4301 that “deliberately rammed and sank the Quang Ngai’s fishing
boat QNg 90617” on early morning April 2nd, according to report by Vietnam Fisheries
Society. Source: Vietnamese fishermen/a journalist from Tuoi Tre Online.
https://dskbd.org/2020/04/04/viet-nam-demands-china-to-punish-its-coast-guard-ship-for-
sinking-vietnamese-fishing-boat-in-the-paracels/
(2) China’s Military Bases in the South China Sea
Chinese military facilities in the Paracels were completed long ago. They include an
airstrip, radar, aircraft hangars, surface to air missiles and piers.
It is generally agreed among analysts that China completed its construction activities
and militarization of its seven ‘artificial islands’ in the Spratlys in 2018-19. These
islands house early warning radar, surface to air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles,
close-in weapons systems to counter sea launched cruise missiles and piers. Three of
these artificial islands (Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs) have an airfield 3 km in
length or large enough for all military aircraft in China’s current inventory.
Fiery Cross Reef serves as a signal intelligence and communications hub for Chinese
military forces operating in the South China Sea. It is more heavily fortified and armed
than Subi and Mischief reefs.
In July 2016, China established a research centre on Mischief Reef. In January this year
China revealed that it had established a maritime rescue centre on Fiery Cross. And
in March, China announced that it had stood up two research stations on Fiery Cross
and Subi reefs.
The research stations on Fiery Cross and Subi reefs ostensibly will support research
into ‘deep sea ecology, geology, environment, material sciences and marine energy’.
Specifically, the centre on Fiery Cross will monitor coral reef biomes or flora and fresh
water conservation; while the centre on Subi will monitor seismic stability and fresh
water. There can be no doubt that any information or other data that is useful for
military operations will be shared with the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Since 2018, Chinese vessels have begun to direct commercial and military-grade lasers
at foreign military aircraft flying over the East China Sea and the South China Sea. In
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May 2019, the Royal Australian Navy has reported an incident in which one of its
helicopters was targeted by a laser from a Chinese fishing boat. More recently, on
February 17, a PLAN Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyer directed a laser at a U.S. P8-
A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft flying over the West Philippine Sea.
Late last year China deployed an aerosat or airship to Mischief Reef. This is a dirigible
or balloon fitted with phased array radar with a range of 300 km to detect low-flying
airplanes. It can be networked with satellites, ground radar and early-warning
reconnaissance aircraft to provide a comprehensive surveillance system.
China has deployed surface-to-air missile systems in the Paracels islands and regularly
deploys military jet aircraft and long-range bombers for short periods.
Last year during the stand-off in the waters near Vanguard Bank, China used its
artificial islands, Fiery Cross Reef in particular, as a forward operating base. Chinese
ships that confronted Vietnam and harassed exploration vessels in Malaysian waters
regularly returned to Fiery Cross to resupply and replenish before returning to waters
over which Vietnam and Malaysia had sovereign jurisdiction.
In early December 2019, Chinese Coast Guard Shucha II-class Cutter No. 5302
departed Mischief Reef and conducted patrols in Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone
(EEZ). It then joined a flotilla of Chinese ships and deployed to Indonesian waters near
Natuna Island from late December/early January during a stand-off involving Chinese
fishing boats illegally fishing in Indonesia’s EEZ. Next, from 9-30 March, China Coast
Guard Cutter No. 5302 sailed into Philippine waters to conduct patrols near Half Moon
and First and Second Thomas shoals. On 19 March it replenished at Mischief Reef and
then returned to Philippine waters.
Net Assessment
Despite being the first country to be heavily affected by COVID-19, China has
continued to conduct ‘business-as-usual’ in the South China Sea without let up. China
continues to consolidate its presence on seven artificial islands and use these islands
as forward operating bases for commercial activities and military operations.
China continues to illegally take marine resources from the EEZs of littoral states.
China Coast Guard ships, Maritime Militia and fishing fleet continue to maintain a
constant presence and harass the legitimate activities of Filipino fishermen and
Malaysian oil exploration vessels. Finally, the PLAN continues to harass U.S. Navy ships
and aircraft undertaking legal freedom of navigation operational patrols and
overflights. The increased use of military-grade lasers is China’s latest provocation. If
continued, it will elicit a U.S. response.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China and the South China Sea: What Does
‘Business as Usual’ Mean?” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 10, 2020. All
background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.