Chinese stealthy catamaran fast-attack missile craft have reportedly been involved in an incident with a boat chartered by a Philippine media company in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea. According to an account citing ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano, the Type 022 Houbei class vessels appeared today in the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef located in the disputed Spratly Islands. The missile craft then apparently aggressively chased away the boat operated on behalf of the ABS-CBN news crew, which had been sailing in the area to monitor the movements of other Chinese vessels.
This comes after a succession of reported incidents of intimidation of Filipino fishermen by Chinese boats, as well as alleged illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in these waters. In March, the Philippine Coast Guard said it had identified no fewer than 220 Chinese ships at another nearby reef, in waters also under Philippine jurisdiction.
“We were on our way to Ayungin Shoal [the Philippine name for Second Thomas Shoal] when a white Chinese Coast Guard ship headed toward us,” Zambrano said. “It moved closer and closer, and we could see that through our lens. After that, it sent a radio communication and in English asked who we were and what we were doing in the area.”
A tweet with a satellite image apparently showing the two Type 022 boats around 15 miles southeast of Ren'ai Shoal, a distance of Second Thomas Shoal:
The news team boat then apparently decided to head back to Palawan, at which point the fast-attack missile craft gave chase. “Two smaller but faster ships chased us,” Zambrano recounted. “The ships were Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft with two missiles mounted.”
The Second Thomas Shoal has been de facto in the Philippines’ possession since 1999, when a Philippine Navy amphibious transport ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, was intentionally grounded on the reef. Since then, the rusting wreck has been maintained by a contingent of marines as an improvised military outpost.
However, beginning in 2013, China has increased its maritime presence near the shoal, to protests from Manila. The area is within the Philippines’ internationally recognized exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and surrounding waters are rich fishing grounds.
In the past, Chinese fishing boats and patrol vessels from the Chinese Coast Guard and have been sighted close to the shoal. This latest incident may be the first time that a Houbei class missile craft operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), specifically, has been identified here.
Late last month, three of the Type 022 vessels together with a supply ship were seen apparently moored at Mischief Reef. This area is home to one of China's man-made outposts in the South China Sea. It is also known in the Philippines as Panganiban Reef and falls within the Philippine EEZ.
While there doesn’t seem to be imagery available to support this claim, there is no doubt that huge numbers of Chinese fishing vessels have been moored around the disputed reef in recent weeks.
However, it is not clear where these PLAN fast-attack missile craft are operating from and whether any examples are now permanently or semi-permanently deployed at outposts in the South China Sea.
Last November, “multiple” Type 022s took part in Chinese maritime maneuvers in the South China Sea, together with three Type 071 amphibious assault ships. This was part of what the Global Times, an offshoot of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, described as “a real combat scenario drill, with the catamarans training in comprehensive attack and defense, air defense and anti-terrorism.”
The PLAN did not disclose exactly where the large-scale maneuvers involving Type 022s took place and the South China Sea is a very large area. With this in mind, missile craft operating in the northern end of these waters, near Hainan or Woody Island, would be significantly different from them patrolling the waters further south, and much further from the Chinese mainland, such as the Second Thomas Shoal.
These prolific vessels — China built more than 80 examples in a seven-year span — are part of a rapid expansion program for the PLAN. Chiefly considered a coastal defense asset up until now, it seems they might also now be used in a more expeditionary role, which could have major strategic implications for the South China Sea.
Video of the Type 022 class vessels during a previous military exercise:
In fact, the Type 022 appears to be especially well equipped for this sort of work, with robust datalink and other command and control capabilities that would allow for greater coordination with other Chinese aircraft and warships.
In addition to that equipment, these catamarans are also well-armed, with eight launchers for YJ-83 subsonic anti-ship missiles and a fast-firing 30mm H/PJ-13 Gatling-type gun on the bow to engage aerial targets and provide fire support. Short-range air defense is apparently entrusted to man-portable air defense systems operated by the crew.
The boats are credited with a maximum speed of around 36 or 38 knots and while their range is unknown, it could be around 300 miles. As noted before, the Type 022s spotted at Mischief Reef were accompanied by a supply ship that would be able to increase their radius of action considerably.
As well as maritime activity in this area, the importance of the Spratly Islands to Beijing’s wider ambitions in the South China Sea has also been reflected in the construction of artificial outposts here. Three locations, in particular, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef have all been subject to significant artificial expansion by China since 2014. They are defended by HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles and ground-launched YJ-12B anti-ship missiles, and all three are also equipped with long runways, at least some of which are capable of supporting bombers.
The Spratly Islands have also been a regular host to long-range air patrols by Chinese fighters, including Su-30 Flankers.
By not only deploying warships and aircraft to the Spratly Islands, but also transforming them into manmade bases provides a platform for Beijing to stake its claim to a vast economic exclusion zone, packed with shipping routes, fishing areas, and natural resources. From these outposts, China would be able to expand its anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) umbrella and then potentially claim control of the entire area, if it so wished.
In the past, China has denied that it’s actively establishing military strongholds in the South China Sea, but the fact remains that its claims cover the largest portion of this area and, despite international opposition and “freedom of navigation” missions by the U.S. military and others, Beijing has been unwilling to yield any ground over the Spratlys and, further north, the Paracel Islands.
China already has a fortress-like network of manmade outposts to project power in the southern end of the South China Sea, and it’s possible these could become further fortified with permanently stationed fighter aircraft, long-range sensors, and missile systems. However, having forward-deployed flotillas of Type 022s would provide an additional immediate layer of defense, as well as a way to strike outward against enemy naval forces from those bases. In particular, the vessels’ shallow draft and high speed make them ideal for defending these kinds of littoral claims. What is more, these vessels’ small crew requirements and ability to operate from austere locations would help maintain a powerful localized presence.
On top of that, the apparently new presence of these missile-armed craft in the southern South China Sea alone sends a powerful signal to the Philippines and other regional powers with competing claims in this region.
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