US Navy’s Challenge in South China Sea? Sheer Number of Chinese Ships

Not only do they have coast guard ships, they are now able to mobilize commercial ships, bringing the total to 172,000 vessels during a national emergency.


Hong Kong:  When a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed near one of Beijing’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea this week, it was operating in a maritime domain bristling with Chinese ships.

While the U.S. Navy is expected to keep its technological edge in Asia for decades, China’s potential trump card is sheer weight of numbers, with dozens of naval and coastguard vessels routinely deployed in the South China Sea.

Such encounters will only increase after U.S. officials said the U.S. Navy would conduct regular freedom-of-navigation operations akin to the patrol by the USS Lassen, which penetrated the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago on Tuesday.

“They are everywhere … and are always very keen to let you know they are there,” said one U.S. naval officer in Asia, requesting anonymity, referring to the Chinese Navy and coastguard.

“If you’re in the South China Sea, you can expect to be shadowed.”

In an actual conflict, the U.S. technological advantage could be crucial, but China’s numerical superiority had to be taken into account, particularly in any stand-off at sea, security experts said.

Homefield Advantage

A Pentagon study published in April showed that China’s South Sea Fleet, which deploys in the South China Sea, was the largest of the country’s three fleets with 116 vessels.

It said China also had more than 200 coastguard ships over 500 tonnes, including many above 1,000 tonnes. China’s coastguard fleet alone dwarves those of Asian rivals combined.

The U.S. Seventh Fleet by comparison operates 55 vessels, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group, from its base in Yokosuka, Japan, where it covers the Western Pacific and much of the Indian Ocean.

“China has homefield advantage,” said Sam Bateman, a retired Australian naval officer and an adviser to Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“At any given time they’ve got the numbers … and quantity not quality can be important in some situations”, including confronting perceived intruders, he said.

Scott Bentley, a researcher at the Australian Defence Force Academy who has studied the South Luconia situation, said China had rotated coastguard vessels to maintain an almost constant presence there since January 2013.

“China is now for the first time in history not only clearly claiming the entirety of the nine-dash line, but is actively attempting to enforce its expansive claims within that area,” he wrote recently.

Full article: US Navy’s Challenge in South China Sea? Sheer Number of Chinese Ships (NDTV)

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