Among the dozens of law enforcement ships patrolling China’s maritime periphery, some have shown a special knack for feuding with foreign mariners—none more so than the fisheries cutter Yu Zheng-310, or YZ-310. In the five years since her commissioning, she has navigated Chinese-claimed waters from the Senkaku Islands to the James Shoal, the mythical “southernmost extent of Chinese territory.” She has jockeyed with Japanese patrol ships, browbeaten the Indonesian coast guard, menaced Philippine fishermen, and called the bluffs of the Vietnamese Navy.
YZ-310 is not a typical vessel. Few Chinese ships can claim her many attainments in the “war without gunsmoke” taking place in the Western Pacific.1 However, none of her operations is unique; none is without precedent. Examining her past, then, sheds light on the roles and missions of Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) writ large. Doing so also offers a richer, more variegated understanding of the men and women guarding China’s blue-water frontier, whose actions could easily precipitate a regional war.