UPDATED at 1.25 P.M. ET on 2020-03-05
A Chinese rescue ship recently showcased with patriotic zeal in the nation’s state media has started operating in and around Fiery Cross Reef, a land feature disputed between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Radio Free Asia has learned.
The Nan Hai Jiu 115, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence’s navy recognition guide, is operated by China’s Ministry of Transportation, and is responsible for rescue and salvage services at sea.
The presence of China’s maritime rescue service and ships in the area reinforces the official narrative that Beijing has benign intentions in its creation of artificial islands and other infrastructure in the South China Sea where its expansive claims are disputed by neighboring nations. But the ship could also play a support role for Chinese maneuvers that put pressure on other claimants.
“By emplacing such services in the Spratlys, Beijing seeks to demonstrate effective administration over the waters and features it claims in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, referring to the hotly contested chain of small islands and reefs where Fiery Cross is located.
“The presence of these facilities and services also feed the strategic narrative Beijing propagates that its construction in the Spratlys is a form of common public good for everyone. It’s designed also to dispel the allegations that China’s been militarizing the disputed area,” he said.
The rescue ship departed the Chinese city of Sanya, Hainan province, on Jan. 10 and entered Fiery Cross Reef on Feb. 18. It has since been patrolling around Fiery Cross, according to vessel-tracking software used RFA.
The precise reason for sending the Nan Hai Jiu 115 to Fiery Cross Reef at this time is unclear. Since July 2018, it has been based at the maritime rescue center on Subi Reef, another disputed feature built-up into an artificial island by China. Fiery Cross is about 110 nautical miles southwest of Subi Reef.
Fiery Cross has been built into a logistics hub for passing Chinese vessels, and is near the site of an ongoing stand-off between Chinese coastguard ships and a Malaysian energy exploration team that was also reported by RFA last week. In addition to a rescue center, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources said on Jan. 21 it has upgraded ecological monitoring facilities at Fiery Cross Reef, according to Xinhua.
Satellite imagery dated Feb. 23 that was analyzed by RFA shows a vessel at dock at Fiery Cross that looks very similar to the Nan Hai Jiu 115. Ship-tracking software shows the vessel was inside Fiery Cross Reef on that day. The vessel is distinguishable by its green-colored landing helicopter dock. It was last detected in Fiery Reef on Feb. 28, but since then no new positions have been recorded.
The Nan Hai Jiu 115 rotates regularly between parts of the Chinese-controlled features in the South China Sea, Koh said, and missions for vessels of its kind usually last months. “So, it’ll be interesting to see the subsequent activities of this vessel in order to know for sure what it’s up to – a routine mission making its rounds in the Spratlys, or a special duty in a specific location,” he said.
Rescue ships in service by China have been used to assist both civilian and military vessels. Of the other two ships of its class, the Nan Hai Jiu 117 is still in port at Sanya, while the Nan Hai Jiu 116 left Sanya Feb. 2 for an unknown location.
A Xinhua News video purportedly showing the crew of the Nan Hai Jui 115 as they carry out their duties was posted Feb. 23. Patriotic music is played while crew shout encouragement for the people of Wuhan and elsewhere in China amid the coronavirus outbreak. Each crew member shown is wearing a blue face mask.
China established the Nansha Maritime Rescue Center on Fiery Cross in January 2019, according to the South China Morning Post and Xinhua. The new maritime rescue center is part of the South China Sea Rescue Bureau under the Ministry of Transport.
The China Rescue Service (CRS) is distinct from the China Coast Guard. The CRS solely focuses on maritime rescues and salvaging after accidents or disasters at sea. Even though this is a civilian function fulfilled by the coastguards of other countries, 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 versus the ostensibly humanitarian mission of the CRS. However, CRS vessels – including the Nan Hai Jiu 115 - have been accompanied by coastguard vessels in the past.
According to a recruitment bulletin posted online by the Ministry of Transport, the South China Sea Rescue Bureau now has eight ‘bases’ to operate from, in Shantou, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhanjiang, Beihai, Haikou, Sanya, and Sansha.
The China Rescue Service received a huge propaganda boost in the form of a big-budget action movie entitled ‘The Rescue,’ released in January. The film prominently features equipment and platforms used by the China Rescue Service, including ships of the same class as the Nan Hai Jiu 115. It was directed by Dante Lam, the same director of the 2018 action movie ‘Operation Red Sea,’ which showcased actual ships and equipment in use by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.