China’s increased reliance on non-naval ships to assert its claims in the South China Sea is complicating U.S. efforts to avoid a clash in the disputed waters, according to 7th Fleet commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin.
While the U.S. and Chinese navies are working more closely under an agreed code for unplanned encounters at sea, the deployment of coast guard and other non-naval vessels in the area is “a concern of mine,” Aucoin told reporters on Monday in Singapore. He plans to take the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the 7th Fleet, to China later in the summer.
“We have all types of senior level engagements with the Chinese PLAN, that we meet pretty routinely,” Aucoin said, referring to China’s navy. He said he had a “greater fear” about other actors, “whether it’s coast guard or what we refer to as white shipping or cabbage ships, not sure about their professionalism.”
Aucoin’s comments come ahead of a two-day summit in California between President Barack Obama and leaders from Southeast Asian nations, as the U.S. seeks to build a unified approach to China’s growing military clout. Southeast Asian countries generally welcome China’s investment and economic muscle, even as some have expressed concern about its expanding naval reach.
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with fellow claimants including Vietnam and the Philippines in a body of water that annually hosts $5 trillion in shipping. In the past two years, China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres in the sea and is building military facilities there. It has also made greater use of fishing and maritime surveillance boats to warn off other vessels in the area, blurring the lines between its navy and coast guard.
Last month the U.S. sent a warship into waters contested by China, Vietnam and Taiwan to challenge the “excessive” maritime claims of all three. It was the second time in less than six months the U.S. has challenged China with a freedom-of- navigation voyage. During the first operation by the USS Lassen, where it passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly island chain, it was shadowed and warned by Chinese boats including non-naval vessels.
“During the Lassen one it was apparent that they were being controlled, that they weren’t operating independently, and that is something that is in our calculus now,” Aucoin said of the Chinese boats. “How do we approach that when it is not gray hull versus another gray hull, it’s other types of ships. I think we’ll see more of that in the future.”
‘Never be defenseless’
Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli said in January that China had no plans to militarize the South China Sea. Still, the country would “never be defenseless,” Wu said. The degree of defensive facilities depends on how much China is under threat, he said.
The U.S.’s 7th Fleet has patrolled Asia’s waters since World War II. Its coverage area extends from Japan to India.
Aucoin said there were no formal talks to bring coast guards under the code for unplanned encounters at sea.