China's largest civilian patrol boat entered service on Saturday, with the state broadcaster CCTV reporting that it would be used to deliver strategic resources and help protect the country's maritime claims.
The Haixun 09, or "sea patrol", was commissioned under the Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) of the southern province of Guangdong province, which oversees the South China Sea.
With a 10,700-tonne displacement, it is also the most advanced ship in the civilian fleet and is equipped with water cannons, an aerial tracking system, medical rescue capabilities and a helicopter landing deck, according to CCTV.
Colin Koh, a research fellow from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said the MSA seemed to be upgrading its emergency response fleet as part of an inter-service rivalry with the Coastguards.
He said that the MSA has previously deployed assets to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, adding that it could justify its actions as contributing to the common public good by providing equipment for emergency responses, for example search and rescue operations.
"Overall, this will lend to the effect of helping China assert its control in the area, including enforcing navigational rules vis-A-vis foreign vessels," Koh said.
Beijing announced a new rule at the end of August that all foreign ships entering the areas of the South China Sea it claims must register their details with the Chinese maritime authorities.
Yue Gang, a former colonel of the People's Liberation Army, expressed caution about the deployment of Haixun 09, saying it should be more geared toward civilian uses.
The ship can travel 180,000km, which is roughly the length of China's coastline, without refuelling and could carry out operations such as rescues and enforcing fishing rules across the Bohai Sea or East China Sea, according to Yue.
"But the South China Sea is sensitive. Long-term deployment of the vessel to the area could lead to conflict," Yue said.
If Haixun09 is sent to the area but does not take enforcement action against rival claimants such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines in areas China claims for itself, then it would undermine Beijing's authority.
But, if the patrol boat takes action, then it could lead to an international confrontation, something that China does not want, Yue said.
"It can be dispatched to places like the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea for a symbolic tour, passing neighbouring countries and showing off China's maritime power and capabilities. But I don't think it's the time yet for a permanent long-term deployment," Yue said.
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