On May 19th, a formidable new Chinese ship put to sea for the first time. As it left its berth at Jiangnan Shipyard, its onboard automatic identification system (AIS) transmitted signals for anyone who cared to receive them. Its identity, Zhongguo Haijing 2901. Its purpose, sea trials. Its heading, somewhere in the East China Sea.
This was not the voyage of the Red October. Zhongguo Haijing 2901 is not a stealthy nuclear submarine able to menace foreign capitals, or sink foreign fleets. Nor is it a sister ship to China’s Liaoning (CV-16), that other potent symbol of sea power, the aircraft carrier. Indeed, by naval standards, its combat capabilities belong to an earlier age—the 19th century.
However, Zhongguo Haijing, or China Coast Guard (CCG) 2901, was not built to fight wars. At over 10,000 metric tons, it is by far the world’s largest constabulary vessel, a class of ship operating at the vanguard of China’s peacetime expansion in maritime East Asia. When it is commissioned sometime in the coming weeks, it will provide a huge advantage to China in the battle of wills taking place along its maritime periphery.