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Freedom of Navigation: China’s Top Destroyers Patrol U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone


China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has deployed two of its most capable destroyers, the Type 055 destroyer Nanchang and the Type 052D destroyer Guiyang, for operations in the United States’ exclusive economic zone near the country’s territorial waters. The destroyers were accompanied by a single Type 903A supply ship for their long distance mission. The deployment has ben seen as a response to the large U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific, with American warships frequently infringing on waters claimed by China as its own territory. The U.S. began freedom of navigation patrols using its Navy and Air Force assets to sail and fly into South China Sea airspace and waters claimed by China and other regional powers such as Vietnam from the mid-2010s, which have been harshly criticised by Beijing and widely seen as provocative. The U.S. has had a significant advantage in its ability to conduct such operations as although its destroyers and aircraft are considerably older on average, they benefit from access to a network of military bases near China while China has no such bases anywhere near the Eastern Pacific. 

Chinese destroyers did not sail beyond international waters in the U.S. exclusive economic zone to enter American territorial waters, and all interactions between the U.S. Coast Guard the PLA Navy were in accordance with international law. The Type 055 destroyer has been dubbed by a number of Western analysts as the world’s most powerful surface combat warship, with the Nanchang being the first of its class and having entered service from January 2020 with the North Sea Fleet based in Qingdao. Three destroyers of the class are currently in service with five more having been launched but not yet commissioned, as China’s destroyer fleet has seen by far the fastest rate of growth of any in the world. The Type 055 and smaller Type 052D were seen as a major step up in Chinese destroyer design to match the AEGIS destroyers in Japan, the U.S. and South Korea with more versatile vertical launch system designs. 

The Type 055 s particularly prized for its firepower with a 112 cell Vertical Launch System (VLS) with access to ten known missile types for anti-ship, anti-submarine, land attack and air defence roles. Used of dual band radars give the ships an advantage over the destroyer classes in U.S. service. The ships are among the best protected in the world with multi layered air defence system formed by four complementary surface to air missile types, the HQ-10, HQ-26, HHQ-9B and DK-10A and multiple close in weapons systems. The deployment of the Type 055 and Type 052D to patrol near the United States is expected to be the first of many similar operations, although it remains uncertain whether they will be able to influence Washington’s behaviour away from conducting patrols that China itself has found highly provocative. 



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