A Chinese frigate has gotten itself stuck in a bind — or rather, a shoal — in the South China Sea. According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

The frigate pinned itself to a reef last night at Half Moon Shoal, on the south-eastern edge of the Spratly Islands, and remains “thoroughly stuck”, according to Western diplomatic sources shortly after midday local time, or 2pm AEST.

Salvage operations could be diplomatically challenging, given the vessel appears to have run aground within 200 kilometres of the Philippines coast, which is squarely within what Manila claims to be its Exclusive Economic Zone.

The stricken People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, believed to be No. 560, a Jianghu-class frigate, has in the past been involved in aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area. (Link)

The Jianghu-class frigates are versions of the old, 1950s-era Riga class destroyers that the Soviet Union gave to China. Armament is generally gun-navy era, except for YJ-82 anti-ship missiles. The ships are old, and according to Wikipedia, foreign customers for the Jianghu-class found them “generally of poor quality.”

No. 560, in more mobile days.

According to the SMH, the ship has been part of China’s effort to harass local Filipino fishing vessels. Nevertheless, the Philippines appears ready to lend a hand.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy said, “Our naval assets are on the way to the area.”

“We will provide assistance if needed,” said Commodore Rustom Peña, commander of the western naval forces.

It’s hard to imagine a more devastating setback to China’s campaign of aggressively asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea, short of hostilities. It’s one thing to push smaller countries around, it’s another to appear incompetent doing so.

The situation is reminiscent of the “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident, in which a Soviet Navy Whiskey-class submarine, S-363, ran aground in Swedish territorial waters. The difference of course is that China believes that poor 560 is in Chinese territory.

Efforts to retrieve the ship might lead to even more friction. China can’t afford to leave the ship there, no matter how “thoroughly stuck” it is, or it will become a monument to Chinese naval incompetence. The ship weighs at least 1,500 tons, and will probably require several Chinese ships to retrieve, plus escorts. The Philippines believes the ship is in its Economic Exclusion Zone and thus in Philippine territory. Regardless, the Philippines is likely to let the Chinese retrieve their ship, and document the entire humiliating process for the entire world to see.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 29 post(s) on Asia Security Watch