South China Sea: China Builds ‘World’s Largest’ Search and Rescue Ship

In this April 12, 2018 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, the Liaoning aircraft carrier is accompanied by navy frigates and submarines conducting an exercises in the South China Sea. China has announced live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait amid heightened tensions over increased American support for Taiwan. The …
Li Gang/Xinhua via AP

China says it has neared completion in building a 450-foot-long search and rescue (SAR) ship, the largest SAR ship in the world, according to Beijing, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Wednesday.

Dubbed simply the “14,000 Kilowatt Large Cruiser Rescue Ship,” the vessel is reported to be about 450 feet long, 88 feet wide, and 36 feet deep, according to the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC). If accurate, the ship’s dimensions would make it the largest SAR vessel in China’s fleet and in the South China Sea region. RFA says it could not immediately verify China’s claim that it will be the “world’s largest” SAR ship. For comparison, China’s current largest SAR vessel, the Dong Hai Jiu 101, measures 360 feet long, 54 feet wide, and 25 feet deep, according to RFA.

On Monday, a subsidiary of state-owned CSSC announced the “completion and installation of stabilizer components” for the SAR ship, according to the report.

The ship’s original tender says the vessel will be used to “[conduct] search and rescue of people, ships, and aircraft in distress in the South China Sea, participate in international rescue operations,” and “maintain [China’s] national rights and interests.” The tender also says that the vessel’s design and technical plans should be completed by the end of May, after which only construction of the ship will be left.

China’s SAR agency, the China Rescue Service (CRS), focuses on maritime rescue and is not officially part of the China Coast Guard (CCG), although the CCG has been known to accompany CRS vessels in the past when working. According to RFA, “[t]his could be because of the aggressive purpose of the China Coast Guard in pressuring other claimants in the South China Sea, which precludes its ability to function as a ‘normal’ coastguard.”

Last July, China announced it had permanently stationed a SAR ship at Subi Reef, the largest of China’s seven illegal military installations in the Philippines’ Spratly Islands. On May 14, reports revealed that Beijing recently deployed fighter jets to its military-grade airfield at Fiery Cross Reef, also part of the Spratly Island chain.

The CRS claims it rescued the crew of a fishing boat grounded on Vietnam’s Paracel Islands on May 21, RFA reports, citing Chinese state media. The rescue allegedly took place after China announced its annual summer fishing ban north of the 12th parallel in the South China Sea — a maritime sector including Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and which China unlawfully claims.

Each summer, Beijing theatrically proclaims a moratorium on South China Sea fishing activities in an effort to exert its claims of sovereignty in the region, which were tossed out of international court in 2016. Despite this, China continues to assert authority over nearly the entire South China Sea — highly coveted for its geostrategic importance and natural resources — and has stepped up its military presence there in recent months. Other southeast Asian nations bordering the sea, such as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia, have been bullied by Beijing in their own waters in recent weeks.

While the May 21 CRS rescue of a fishing boat remains unverified outside of Chinese propaganda outlets, China’s April 2 attack of a Vietnamese fishing boat in Vietnam’s waters — in which it hit and sunk the boat and detained its crew — was widely documented by international authorities. Vietnam subsequently filed a formal diplomatic protest of the incident and condemned Beijing for “seriously violating” its sovereignty in the South China Sea.

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