Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:29 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:29 | SYDNEY

Hope aground in South China Sea


Rory Medcalf


16 July 2012 11:33

Talks on an ASEAN-China code of conduct in the South China Sea were not the only thing to run aground in that contested body of water last week. Yesterday the Chinese navy rescued one of its frigates, which had been embarrassingly stranded on Half Moon Shoal, in waters claimed by the Philippines and China.

Below are a few initial thoughts on the wider implications of the frigate Dongguan's (pictured) brief spell of unsought fame (see also my analysis for The Guardian).

Many observers, myself included, had thought that China was cleverly restraining itself in relying primarily on the lightly-armed or even unarmed vessels of civilian agencies, and not its navy, to enforce and advance its claims in the South China Sea. For instance, according to Crisis Group, the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) has not engaged in any incident in the South China Sea since it began regularly patrolling there in 2005.

Yet the log of the Dongguan might raise new questions about such a view. In its minimalist admission of the stranding on Friday, China's Ministry of Defence described the frigate as having been on a 'routine patrol'. A Chinese warship on routine patrol in dangerously disputed waters just 90nm off the coast of the Philippines would not seem to be a sign of restraint.

If China is indeed deploying naval vessels routinely to assert its outlying claims, then the game is changing for the worse. And an unconfirmed but detailed account from early 2011 suggests that the deployment of this very warship to intimidate Philippines fishermen is not a first.

Any view that China (and other nations) can maintain provocative patrolling in contested waters without a dangerous incident, such as a collision or exchange of fire, rests on assumptions about the professionalism and seamanship of the mariners concerned. 

No doubt navigating reef waters is tricky for any ship, as navy colleagues charitably remind me. But the Dongguan incident suggests an unwarranted confidence on the part of at least one commander in China's South Sea Fleet. It does not bode well for future games of nautical chicken on China's perilous maritime edge. And this is by no means suggesting that the mariner skills of all the other nations operating in the area are somehow superior.

On the bright side, the success of the Chinese refloating operation has headed off what could have become a prolonged and awkward diplomatic incident and a potential stand-off with Philippines forces. China's diplomats will still have some explaining to do, and no doubt there will be difficult questions asked within the PLAN's own chains of command. 

The way the story came to light is a reminder that there is much more going on in the multi-player maritime cat-and-mouse games of the contested waters on China's periphery than most of the outside world ever realises. It is doubtful the PLAN ever wanted to publicise this mishap. Instead, it took an Australian journalist, John Garnaut, to break the story on Friday afternoon, citing diplomatic sources, almost 48 hours after the accident occurred. The Philippines and international media picked up and added to his report. A few hours later, Garnaut's story seems to have compelled the Chinese Ministry of Defence to acknowledge a problem they knew they were no longer be able to hide. The Chinese media began reporting on the rescue thereafter, and by Sunday were able to confirm that national dignity had been restored.

But for three and a half days, the ship's company of the Dongguan staked China's claim to 100m or so of Half Moon Shoal in a more direct fashion than they could ever have intended.

Photo courtesy of Philippine Defense Forum.