Coast guards around the world are often overlooked. Their missions — law enforcement and search and rescue — make them perhaps less bellicose than navies, although coast guards are often formal military branches in their own right, as in the United States.
China's coast guard is more muscular than most. Even combative. And China's coast guard has one especially combative ship — the CCG3210, formerly known as the Yuzheng 310.
CCG3210 has influenced politics in the South China Sea, of which China lays claim to virtually the entire territory. In a recent example from May, the Indonesian destroyer Oswald Siahaan-354 shelled the stern of a Chinese fishing trawler intruding in Indonesian waters near the Natuna Islands.
That Indonesia found it appropriate to deploy a heavily-armed destroyer to intercept a fishing boat is partly because of a more aggressive approach by Jakarta to counter Chinese intrusions. And it may be because of repeated close encounters with CCG3210, a 2,580-ton Chinese coast guard patrol ship armed with machine guns, light cannons, and (likely) advanced hardware capable of jamming communications.
Let's count several milestones in her career. Built in 2010, CCG3210 escorted a fishing flotilla and stared down the Philippine navy during a dispute over territorial rights. But that was just the beginning.
In March 2013, the Indonesian patrol boat Hiu Macan 001 intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel in Indonesian territorial waters about 200 kilometers northwest of the Natuna Islands. The islands are between Malaysia and Borneo, and serve as a southern reference point for the South China Sea.
The islands are also Indonesian territory.
Technically, the Chinese vessel was operating illegally in Indonesian waters, too. So the Hiu Macan 001 arrested the crew and proceeded home. Curiously, a Chinese research vessel appeared and began following her, according to an overview of the incident by Scott Bentley at The Strategist blog.
Several hours passed. Then a much larger Chinese ship arrived — the CCG3210.
The tough ship signaled the Hiu Macan 001 and demanded her crew hand over the fishermen. Hiu Macan 001's captain then discovered that his satellite communications gear ceased to function. Outgunned by a larger, much more threatening Chinese ship — and unable to talk to headquarters — he complied with the demand.
Communications were restored after CCG3210 left … with the Chinese crew.
The incident, along with two others involving the Chinese former salvage vessel YZ-311, were "the only incidents anywhere in the South China Sea involving a direct threat to use force by a Chinese [maritime law enforcement] vessel, done with the clear intention of actively coercing, or compelling, another security vessel to reverse a law enforcement action it had already undertaken," Bentley wrote.
But Bentley wrote his analysis in October 2013. Less than three years later, the quarrelsome ship was involved in another face-off — one that turned violent.
In March 2016, an Indonesian patrol ship seized the Chinese fishing vessel Kway Fey less than three miles from the Natuna Islands. The United Nations considers a nation's territorial waters to extend 200 nautical miles from its coastal baseline, which gave the Indonesians jurisdiction.
Like before, the Indonesians arrested the ship's crew and took them aboard. But this time they hooked up a tow to their captured prey. While hauling the ship to port, two Chinese coast guard ships arrived including a large, white warship … that very strongly resembled CCG3210, according to The Diplomat.
"A visual comparison of the ship's exterior profile with those of vessels operated by the CCG South China Sea Branch suggests that it was CCG3210," the magazine noted.
The ship-that-was-likely-CCG3210 then proceeded to ram the fishing boat, freeing it from the Indonesian vessel's snare. "We want to avoid a much more serious incident, so we settled on just arresting the eight crew members," Indonesian fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti said. "The ship got away but we have the eight men in custody to help us investigate this incident."
Beijing claims the waters around the Natuna Islands are part of "a traditional Chinese fishing ground."
To be sure, Chinese fishermen are far from the only ones poaching in the South China Sea. Indonesia regularly captures and blows up or burns foreign fishing boats caught in its territorial waters, many dozens of them, including Vietnamese and Malaysian vessels. Nor does Indonesia have any contested claims in the sea.
What Indonesia does have are exclusive economic rights around the Natuna Islands, which overlaps with Chinese claims that are vaguely defined under the "nine-dash line." And no country has done as much to aggressively protect its fishermen in foreign waters as China — legalities aside.
CCG3210 can do so with considerable skill, and great distance from the Chinese mainland. No wonder Indonesia is now keeping watch with destroyers. Now remember that wars have begun over less.
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