You’ve probably seen news of tensions between China and her neighbors, primarily Japan, but also the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, over any number of small island chains in the region. The islands themselves are pretty worthless, but the opportunity to extract resources from the seabed, or fish in the waters nearby, offer great incentive to claim those islands. Current international law recognizes a twelve mile zone of territorial waters from the shores of a nation. But it also recognizes the concept of the Exclusive Economic Zone, wherein only the sovereign nation may fish or drill or otherwise exploit the resources of local seas. Generally, an EEZ of 200 nautical miles is recognized. Now, for a nation like the US, 200nm isn’t really a problem. It’s a long way from San Fran to the other side of the Pacific. But on the other side, there are a lot of areas where any 200nm zone would overlap with one or more other nations. So maneuvering to legitimize claims to sovereignty of one or more parcels of these waters gives influence on just where one’s territorial waters and EEZ are.
Chinese actions have been fairly aggressive, but they have carefully been designed to avoid outright military confrontation. For the most part, they have used patrol vessels, rather than warships, to emphasize their claims over disputed waters. This gives them the option of either de-escalating tensions, should things go poorly for them, or escalating them (by having the option of deploying warships) should they choose to do so.
So what of these civilian maritime agencies?
Feng, the resident China expert at Information Dissemination, has three great posts. The first is an overview of the historical background regarding Chinese antipathy toward Japan. To be sure, China does have real grounds for grievances with Japan. That’s not to say China’s actions are legitimate, but we do need to recognize that the Chinese people support their government in asserting sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku island chain.
The second post, over at his own blog, shows the five primary Chinese civilian maritime agencies. Where our own Coast Guard would be used, China, as befits a vast bureaucracy, sees fit to duplicate effort through different agencies.
And finally, back at ID, Feng looks at the shipbuilding boon these agencies have experienced in the last few years. As Feng notes, some of the shipbuilding is almost certainly a subsidy to support shipbuilding when orders for merchantmen are down. But the primary goal is to beef up China’s ability to patrol its waters and extend its influence upon the sea. Incidentally, take a look at the prices China is paying for these ships. Compare that to what a comparable US patrol vessel might cost. I’d guess it’s about 1/10th the price we’d pay. To be sure, any one US vessel is likely to be more capable. But ships can still only be in one place at a time, and quantity has a quality all its own.