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China building its biggest search and rescue ship yet for South China Sea

Fiery Cross Reef (U.S. Navy/Released)
May 29, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China says it is nearing completion of a 450-foot-long search and rescue ship, the largest such vessel in its fleet, that will enter service with the Ministry of Transport’s South China Sea Rescue Bureau.

The ship will dwarf coastguard vessels from other nations in those disputed waters, where accidents at sea are increasingly common, and China’s maritime presence looms increasingly large.

A subsidiary of state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation announced the completion and installation of stabilizer components for the search and rescue (SAR) ship Monday.

A contract to construct the ship itself was signed between the South China Sea Rescue Bureau and a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based China Merchants Group in November according to a release on the China Merchant Industrial Holdings’ website. The signing ceremony was overseen by the South China Sea Rescue Bureau’s Party Secretary, Zhuang Zeping.

According to the original tender put out by the Ministry of Finance, the design and technical plans for the ship should be done by this month, leaving only construction of the ship left. The tender doesn’t specify when construction should be complete.

The SAR ship is simply called the 14,000 Kilowatt Large Cruiser Rescue Ship. If the dimensions specified under the original tender and in the China State Shipbuilding Corporation release are accurate, this would indeed be the largest and most powerful ship operated by China’s search and rescue service.  It would be roughly 450 feet long, 88 feet wide, and 36 feet deep. In comparison, the ship’s predecessor and China’s current largest, most powerful SAR vessel, the Dong Hai Jiu 101, is 360 feet by 54 feet, with a depth of 25 feet.

China says it will be the world’s largest search and rescue vessel – a claim that RFA could not immediately confirm. It would certainly be significantly larger than any other SAR ships in the region, and larger than any coastguard ships owned by other claimants in the South China Sea.

China’s Ministry of Transport operates many “rescue bureaus” under its SAR agency, the China Rescue Service (CRS). The South China Sea Rescue Bureau is based at Haikou, Hainan province, and has set up regional rescue centers on disputed rocks and islands in the South China Sea: one on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, and one on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. Even where there are no formal centers, SAR ships have been permanently based at such artificial islands as Subi Reef.

The Large Cruiser Rescue Ship is set to be the most advanced SAR ship in China’s fleet, capable of hauling shipwrecks out of the deep sea with a 133-ton crane. However, no rescue mission practiced by the CRS in the South China Sea to date has necessitated such a vessel. The original tender elaborates on the rescue ship’s purpose, stating it will be used for “search and rescue of people, ships, and aircraft in distress in the South China Sea, participate in international rescue operations,” and “maintain national rights and interests.”

The CRS is not part of the China Coast Guard (CCG) and solely focuses on maritime rescue or salvaging after accidents at sea involving other ships or civilians. It has been increasingly active in disputed waters, where Chinese fishermen and maritime militia are encouraged to operate to assert China’s sweeping maritime claims. According to Chinese state media, since the establishment of the rescue center on Fiery Cross, four rescue missions have been completed.

Most recently, the CRS rescued the crew of a fishing boat grounded in the Paracel Islands on May 21, Chinese state media reported. The rescue took place after China declared its annual summer fishing moratorium north of the 12th parallel in the South China Sea on May 1 – a unilateral ban that has drawn protests from Vietnam and the Philippines over China’s assertion that it has jurisdiction over the area. The Paracels falls within the zone covered by the moratorium but it wasn’t clear from the report whether the boat in question was on a fishing expedition.

The CRS was not folded into the coastguard along with other agencies and bureaus in the 2013 reform process that created the China Coast Guard as it is today. This 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. However, CRS vessels have been accompanied by the CCG in the past when working. China’s State Council issued new guidelines for the CRS in December 2019, emphasizing the importance of maritime SAR capabilities as economic activity increases in Chinese waters.