Against the backdrop of an escalating crisis with Vietnam over territorial claims in the waters off the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, China declared that it would boost its "offshore surveillance capability." This, a Chinese state media report claimed, was aimed at forestalling any aggressive moves by China's neighbors in its claimed maritime territories. Though the report did not name any particular nation, the message was seen as being squarely directed at Vietnam, which Beijing has described as being "overtly hostile" in its recent actions and pronouncements.
China's decision to enhance its ocean surveillance capability is not surprising. The presence of Chinese maritime surveillance vessels has been a common factor in almost all the recent maritime entanglements between China and its neighbors. These large, high-speed, mostly multirole ships have been known to openly interfere with operations of other nations' survey and oil exploration vessels. Most of the recent skirmishes at sea have, in fact, been deliberately provoked by Chinese surveillance vessels. Japanese and Vietnamese officials complain that besides gathering advance information, China has used these ships to mark "presence" and intimidate foreign crafts. They are, fundamentally, a blatant show of strength in China's perceived area of influence in the South China Sea and East Sea.
In the past two months, Chinese surveillance ships were involved in clashes with other nations' survey and exploration ships on at least three occasions. On May 4, Tokyo protested to Beijing after a Chinese inspection ship chased down a Japanese ocean-surveying vessel in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area extending 200 nautical miles from the Japanese coast. Then, on May 28, a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel damaged a Vietnamese oil-exploration craft within Vietnam's EEZ by cutting its exploration cables. On June 9, Chinese surveillance boats reportedly cut the cables belonging to another Vietnamese oil-exploration ship. This premeditated act took place well inside Vietnam's EEZ, underscoring the impunity with which Chinese surveillance ships now operate in the South China Sea.