UPDATED: Chinese Spy Ships Stalk U.S., Philippine and French Warships in South China Sea

April 29, 2024 5:58 PM - Updated: April 29, 2024 11:51 PM
USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) aborts a live-fire drill in the South China Sea due to the entry of Chinese spy ship Tianwangxing into the exercise area on April 29, 2024. Photo courtesy of Rik Glauert, TaiwanPlus used with permission

This post has been updated with a statement from U.S. forces in the Philippines.

U.S., Philippine, and French amphibs and frigates drew the attention of Chinese surveillance ships and surface combatants as they sailed out of Philippine territorial waters into the disputed waters of the South China Sea over the weekend during Manila’s largest annual military exercise.

The combined force, composed of USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49), BRP Davao del Sur (LD 602), BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16) and FS Vendémiaire (F 734), departed Puerto Princesa last Thursday to kick off the multilateral maritime exercise component of Balikatan 2024 with Chinese warships nearby.

Sailing to their planned exercise areas in the South China Sea, the ships were within Philippine archipelagic waters in the Sulu Sea during an uneventful first day at sea. However, after exiting territorial waters, at least two People’s Liberation Army Navy spy ships were spotted shadowing the multinational formation on Saturday.

One surveillance ship was identified as the Type 815-class electronic surveillance ship Tianwangxing (793). Philippine state media reported Tianwangxing was spotted near the exercise area, around 50 nautical miles from Western Palawan in the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Alongside the two spy ships, a Chinese frigate came within seven to nine nautical miles of the group on Sunday.

According to a TaiwanPlus reporter embarked on a Philippine Navy warship, the Chinese surveillance ship Tianwangxing sailed within two nautical miles of Harpers Ferry disrupting a live-fire drill with crew-served weapons. Following an earlier version of this post, two U.S. exercise spokespeople denied the Chinese ship disrupted the exercise to USNI News.

Armed Forces of the Philippines officials told local media that they were unbothered by the presence of PLAN ships because they received no provocations or disruptions to the exercise, stating that “as long [as] we continue to monitor and report them, we are in control of the situation, and besides the exercises are still ongoing.”

While maritime drills have occurred in previous iterations of Balikatan, this year’s exercise pushes the boundaries through its activities in the South China Sea. According to exercise plans, the drills will include “sailing within the bounds of the Philippines’ economic exclusive zone” and training for freedom of navigation operations.

France and the Philippines will also hold a separate bilateral exercise on Tuesday outside of the scope of Balikatan 2024. The patrol frigates Vendémiaire and Ramon Alcaraz will detach from the trilateral formation to conduct a bilateral sail in the South China Sea, although it’s unclear where or what drills the ships will perform. While the 2024 Balikatan is the first time Paris is participating, a French news release stated that Vendémiaire will leave the exercise before “it reaches its high-intensity phase,” referring to U.S.-Philippine coastal defense and amphibious assault drills.

Balikatan’s maritime component in the South China Sea wrapped up on Monday with a last-minute shadow of the PLAN Type 51B Luhai-class destroyer Shenzhen (167) and the inclusion of USS Somerset (LPD-25). The amphibs will now continue for other activities under Balikatan, such as amphibious assault and HIMARS rapid infiltration drills across Western Palawan. Somerset got underway over the weekend after stopping in Subic Bay for mid-voyage repairs. The amphibious transport dock has been operating in the Indo-Pacific since deploying in January. The ship is part of a split deployment of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Before the beginning of Balikatan, the Philippine military stated that there were around 124 Chinese Maritime Militia vessels operating within the country’s EEZ, marking a drastic increase from the numbers usually operating in the area.

These encounters with Chinese vessels have occurred despite the Philippine Coast Guard’s reported commitment of six patrol vessels to safeguard the exercise areas from “unauthorized vessels.”

An Army UH-60 Blackhawk assigned to 2-158th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division, leave the landing area of the USS Somerset (LPD-25) while underway in the Gulf of Thailand, Feb. 29, 2024. US Army Photo

Chinese spy ships have been a common sight across the Indo-Pacific over the last decade. During the Rim of the Pacific exercises, Beijing’s spy ships consistently deploy around Hawaii to track the multinational naval drills. Even in 2014, when China sent four ships to participate in the exercise, a Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence ship was spotted observing the drills from a distance. Japan, Australia and India have also reported the presence of PLAN spy ships.

In 2022, the PLAN spy ship Haiwangxing (792) entered Philippine archipelagic waters and loitered around the Sulu Sea for three days claiming innocent passage. The Philippine government protested the incursion, stating that “[i]ts movements, however, did not follow a track that can be considered as continuous and expeditious, lingering in the Sulu Sea for three days.” These events also transpired during the U.S.-Philippine Marine Exercise 2022, which had several activities in Palawan.

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa is a freelance defense journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox