With tensions between Beijing and its neighbours riding high over territorial claims in the South China Sea , a Chinese shipyard has begun work on what will be the largest offshore patrol vessel in the nation’s civilian fleet, according to a state media report. Commissioned by the Guangdong Maritime Safety Administration, the 676 million yuan (US$97.1 million) ship is designed to handle a range of tasks, from emergency operations and law enforcement to search and rescue missions and even tackling pollution, China News Service reported. At 165 metres (540 feet) long and 20.6 metres wide, the vessel will weigh in at 10,700 tonnes and be large enough to accommodate several types of helicopters. According to earlier reports it is expected to be completed by September next year. At present, only the Chinese coastguard, which is administered by the People’s Armed Police – a branch of the military – has patrol ships weighing more than 10,000 tonnes. The new vessel will provide a boost to China’s civilian maritime law enforcement capabilities, observers say. “China needs more and larger patrol ships with higher cruising ability,” said Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator. “The law enforcement ability of small vessels is limited … [so] with large patrol ships, the maritime authorities can conduct more regular patrols in different maritime areas.” China is currently locked in a number of maritime disputes with its regional neighbours, including Japan in the East China Sea and several Southeast Asian nations over exploration and territorial rights in the South China Sea, almost all of which Beijing claims. Last month, China commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier – the Shandong – which state media said was likely to play a key role in the hotly disputed waterway. Beijing has extensively used non-military ships – from the coastguard fleet and even fishing boats – to raise its presence in the region, where its extensive island-building and construction of military installations has fuelled China’s growing rivalry with the United States. While Beijing says the build-up is for the common good of the region, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says few rival claimants share that view. “China will send the maritime safety administration’s 10,000-tonne patrol ship to build facilities in the Spratlys, for example, but it’ll still argue that such a move is for everyone’s good,” he said. Chinese warplanes take South China Sea exercises to new level Adam Ni, a China specialist based in Australia, said the new patrol ship would give Beijing a huge advantage in the South China Sea, where its naval and non-naval forces already dwarf those of its rival claimants. “China’s increasing maritime capability, not only with respect to the People’s Liberation Army but also its non-military units is expected to strengthen its position in the South China Sea,” he said. “That is something we have to be very conscious of when looking at the strategic balance in the South China Sea, where the competition is now not just about military-to-military competition but increasingly about law enforcement and non-military forces.” Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.