Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels maintain a near-constant presence at Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak State. That uncomfortable fact does not garner much attention, either in the Malaysian or international press, but it speaks to Beijing’s determination to establish administrative control throughout the nine-dash line. The reefs, which are divided into the North and South Luconia Shoals, are located between the hotly contested Spratly Islands to the north and James Shoal, which China often calls its southernmost territory, to the south. Like James Shoal, the Luconia Shoals are underwater at high-tide, meaning they cannot be claimed as territory and constitute part of Malaysia’s continental shelf.
In September 2013, a CCG vessel dropped anchor at South Luconia Shoals and reportedly did not leave until late November 2015, just before Malaysia hosted that year’s ASEAN and East Asia Summits. During that time, the CCG presence at the shoals provoked hearings in the Malaysian Parliament and repeated complaints from government officials—a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department even posted aerial photos of the ship to Facebook in June 2015, sparking outrage. But with the CCG’s withdrawal ahead of the Kuala Lumpur ASEAN Summit and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s subsequent outreach to Beijing, the issue largely disappeared from public discourse in Malaysia.
Unfortunately, the CCG withdrawal at the end of 2015 was short-lived. In collaboration with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), AMTI has monitored the movement of ships around Luconia Shoals using C4ADS’ unique data and analytics.
The map below shows the movement of CCG and Malaysian government vessels at the shoals over a 60-day period, from the end of December 2016 to late February 2017. The playback can be paused and the slider manually manipulated to explore ship locations on any given date. The map can also be zoomed in or out and individual objects can be hovered over for more information. In some cases, the same ship may appear more than once on the map, indicating that its transponder signal was received more than once during the period shown.
These 60 days saw a near-constant presence of CCG vessels at Luconia Shoals. The Zhongguo Haijing 3306 was on patrol until at least January 6 and was replaced by the Zhongguo Haijing 3501 on January 12. That ship patrolled until about February 3 and was replaced by the Zhongguo Haijing 3402 on February 15. During that time, only one Malaysian government vessel, the Royal Malaysian Navy’s KD Selangor, patrolled the shoals from January 22 to January 29. During that time, it operated as close as 4 nautical miles from the Zhongguo Haijing 3501, indicating that its purpose was likely to monitor the CCG presence.
These two months were not unusual; they are consistent with a regular rotation of CCG ships at Luconia Shoals that CSIS and C4ADS traced back to January 2016. Assuming the CCG really did withdraw ahead of the 2015 ASEAN and East Asia Summits, it appears that Chinese ships returned almost immediately. Since that time, at least 11 CCG vessels have patrolled the shoals. Most of these have been of China’s Shucha II-class, which has a displacement of 3,980 tons—more than twice that of Malaysia’s new Kedah-class offshore patrol vessels, including the KD Selangor. Even the smallest of the CCG vessels patrolling Luconia Shoals, the Shuwu-class, are roughly equivalent to the Kedah-class in displacement. The largest, at 5,000 tons, are the Shuoshi II-class ships, including the Zhongguo Haijing 3501. That vessel outweighed the Selangor nearly three-to-one when they were operating just a few miles from each other in late January.