A Chinese rescue ship, the Nan Hai Jiu 115, is maneuvering around Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, reported Radio Free Asia (RFA), a non-profit news site. The reason for the ship’s presence is unknown but thought to be “benign” or of a non-military nature.

The vessel is considered one of China’s most advanced. It can carry out tasks like firefighting, oil spill clean-up, and emergency medical services. It is easily identified by its green-colored landing helicopter dock and heliport that can handle medium-sized helicopters.

RFA used vessel-tracking software to monitor the ship’s movements around Fiery Cross after it left the city of Sanya, a Chinese province, on Jan. 10. Before its latest excursion, it was based on Subi Reef situated about 110 miles northeast of its present location.

Fiery Reef lies midway between the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. The reef is called “Yongshu Reef" by the Chinese, "Kagitingan Reef" by the Philippines and "Đá Chữ Thập" by the Vietnamese. China occupies and controls the immediate area and has built artificial islands and other nearby infrastructure thought to be military in nature. It is also in proximity to another disputed island chain, the Spratly Islands.

Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said, “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.” He was referring to other contested island chains, artificial structures and reefs in addition to Fiery Cross Reef and the Spratly Islands.

He added, “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.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, a major global shipping route and long a source of tension among claimants in Southeast Asia China claims most of the South China Sea, a major global shipping route and long a source of tension among claimants in Southeast Asia Photo: AFP / TED ALJIBE

China has two other rescue ships in the same class as the Nan Hai Jiu 115. On Feb. 2, the Nan Hai Jiu 116 left Sanya for an unknown location while the Nan Hai Jiu 117 is still in port at Sanya.

The Nan Hai Jiu 115 rotates regularly between Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea and missions for vessels of its class can last months, according to Koh. “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,” said Koh.

The three Nan Hai Jiu rescue ships are operated by the China Rescue Service (CRS) and are distinct from vessels under the realm of the China Coast Guard (CCG). This distinction helps to quell charges of any military purposes as the CRS ships focus solely on maritime rescues and salvaging after accidents or disasters at sea. The CRS vessels have, however, been escorted by the more military CCG ships to their destinations.

The deployment of the rescue vessel seems to be unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak and appears to be there for a non-aggressive role. Any territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors usually stem from China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and the oil and mineral reserves of an important international waterway.