TAIPEI — A new Chinese-built seaplane could help seal Beijing's control over its claims in the South China Sea (SCS), say military specialists on China.
The Jiaolong (Water Dragon) AG600, under construction by China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA), will be China's largest operational seaplane. CAIGA did not respond to inquiries after the company's announcement on March 17 that it had completed the front fuselage assembly for the prototype.
According to brochures obtained at the 2014 Airshow China in Zhuhai, the aircraft is powered by four turboprop WJ-6 engines and has a range of 5,500 kilometers, which would provide substantial movement within the SCS. In the Spratly Islands, China is currently constructing artificial islands on Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reef.
Despite the lack of direct mainland access to Beijing's strategic claims in the SCS, the aircraft are seen as a boon to solidifying control of the area by China's military and maritime enforcement agencies for island hopping within the crowded clusters of the 750 reefs, islets, atolls and islands in the Spratly Islands archipelago.
"Amphibious planes like the AG600 would be perfect for resupplying the new artificial islands that the Chinese are building in the SCS," said Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"At the same time, these islands would be excellent bases of operations for the AG600 to engage in maritime patrols of claimed territories."
The AG600 will also serve as political leverage, said Ching Chang, a research fellow at Taiwan's ROC Society for Strategic Studies.
"States need effective governance to support their territorial claim" and the AG600 will enhance China's capability in "law enforcement, fishery patrol, anti-poaching activity on coral reefs, pollution prevention, search and rescue, medical rescue transportation, meteorological and seismic survey, namely, all the government functions that may signify its substantial governance in the South China Sea."
This type of governance and control will serve China's argument that the islands are "inhabitable according to UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] requirements, which support the PRC [People's Republic of China] to claim an EEZ [exclusive economic zone] in the South China Sea."
CAIGA brochures indicate the AG600 can fulfill four missions: search and rescue (SAR), fire fighting, transport (up to 50 passengers), and maritime surveillance. These aircraft might also serve China's military in the roles of signal intelligence and electronic intelligence, said Sam Bateman, adviser, Maritime Security Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
However, Bateman does not see these aircraft as a "game changer" in the SCS, though they could serve to "quickly resupply and reinforce the military outposts on islands without air strips."
CAIGA brochures make no mention of a military application, but history indicates that seaplanes have a relatively small commercial market. The existing producers of large amphibious aircraft, Japan and Russia, indicate that the market for fire fighting and SAR missions is small, said Vasiliy Kashin, a China military specialist at Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Both aircraft producers are legacies of the Cold War, he said, and in comparison China has created a new design and established a new production line for an aircraft that has a terrible commercial market history.
"Since the program can hardly be justified by the civilian demand, the likely explanation is that the program has a significant military importance," Kashin said.
The AG600 is not the only seaplane under development by CAIGA. At the 2014 Airshow China, the company displayed models of the twin-engine turboprop-engine powered H660 and H631, each with a similar payload and range. There was also a model of the four turbofan-engine powered H680 Sea Eagle.
The company also builds two light passenger seaplanes, the 208B and HO300, both with a range of roughly 1,000-1,500 kilometers.