The Covid-19 pandemic has had no discernible effect on the presence of the China Coast Guard (CCG) in the South China Sea. An analysis of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data collected by MarineTraffic demonstrates that Beijing has continued to deploy its coastguard around symbolically important features at the edges of the nine-dash line on an almost daily basis, just as it did in 2019. That CCG vessels so frequently broadcast AIS from these reefs, which are not physically occupied by China, suggests that they want to be seen signaling China’s claims.
China Coast Guard Patrols in the South China Sea
December 1, 2019 – November 30, 2020
In the 12 months from December 1, 2019, the CCG not only maintained a persistent presence at Second Thomas Shoal, Luconia Shoals, and Scarborough Shoal, but appears to have increased the frequency of patrols during the pandemic. There was at least one CCG vessel, and often two, broadcasting from Scarborough Shoal on 287 of the last 366 days—a substantial increase from last year’s 162 days. Luconia and Second Thomas Shoal saw more modest increases: at least one CCG ship was broadcasting from Luconia for 279 days and from Second Thomas Shoal for 232 days.
CCG behavior during these patrols appears unchanged from 2019. Vessels deployed around Luconia occasionally challenged nearby Malaysian oil and gas activity. Those patrolling Second Thomas often made loops around nearby Half-Moon Shoal, a submerged feature 60 nautical miles off Palawan where, in 2014, Philippine authorities arrested 11 Chinese fishers for poaching.
But there has been one noteworthy addition to the regular CCG patrol route since July of this year: Vanguard Bank off Vietnam’s southeast coast. A CCG ship was broadcasting AIS from Vanguard on 137 of the 153 days between July 1 and December 1. The submerged bank is near the site of a months-long standoff between China and Vietnam over oil and gas drilling in 2019. It had gone quiet until CCG vessels began persistent patrols in July. That coincides with Hanoi’s decision to cancel planned drilling in Block 06-01—the site of the 2019 standoff.
The persistent CCG patrols since then have been concentrated to the east of that block, near Vanguard Bank itself. Vietnam maintains several isolated outposts there known as “economic, scientific, and technological service stations,” or Dịch vụ-Khoa (DK1). On November 2, the 5204 came within five nautical miles of one of these stations during a loop around the bank. It also continued to veer off for regular patrols around Block 06-01. This is similar to the CCG’s long-standing pattern at Luconia Shoals, which frequently includes patrols of nearby oil and gas fields.
The new patrol route at Vanguard Bank is being facilitated by China’s base on Fiery Cross Reef. The ability to resupply there has allowed the 5204 to patrol Vanguard by itself since mid-August with minimal down time.
AIS data shows a remarkably consistent level of CCG presence at Scarborough, Second Thomas, Luconia, and Vanguard. But even this is likely an undercount, as many coastguard ships still do not broadcast AIS signals or do so infrequently. For example, AIS data indicates there were no vessels at Scarborough Shoal on May 14, but a high-resolution satellite image from Maxar reveals two Zhaoyu-class patrol vessels on station.
Zhaoyu-class patrol ships at Scarborough Shoal, May 14, 2020
Southeast Asian claimants largely refrain from deploying law enforcement or naval vessels to contest these routine patrols. This suggests that China is successfully normalizing its presence. One recent exception was Malaysia’s deployment of the patrol vessel KD Kelantan to Luconia Shoals on August 29, which appears to have encouraged the departure of the 5403, the CCG vessel on station at the time. But the effect was only temporary: a Chinese ship returned to Luconia in November and is currently harassing oil and gas activity in the area. Given the presence of important energy resources and the vulnerable DK1 platforms at Vanguard Bank, whether Hanoi will more actively contest the CCG’s newest patrol route bears watching.