Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces patrolling the South China Sea are learning English to avoid misunderstandings and misjudgements during engagements with ships from other countries passing through the disputed waterway.
According to a report by state-owned English-language broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN), as China ambitiously expands its blue-water navy’s reach, the skill is now “essential”.
“In recent years, countries and forces outside China have been provoking troubles and creating tensions in the South China Sea,” the CGTN report said, according to the South China Morning Post.
Although English Seaspeak, specifically designed to facilitate communication between ships whose captains’ native tongues differ, does exist and is widely used around the world, the PLA lessons are apparently even more stripped back to what Beijing calls “battlefield English”.
The Paracel Islands are uninhabited atolls and reefs in the South China Sea currently controlled by China, but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
During a recent military exercise on an island reef in the Paracels, parts of the drill included using English when engaging with “enemy” troops. In the broadcast, a soldier was heard to say in English: “You are surrounded. Surrender.”
Liu Chuanming, commander of a marine police district in the Paracels, said the deployment was at the forefront of China’s military defences in the South China Sea. “We must ensure that our intentions can be accurately conveyed, thus we need to improve our level of English.”
The PLA expelled a number of foreign ships from the South China Sea in 2020. Most recently, a Chinese warship used English to warn off a foreign merchant ship in the area during a PLA combat readiness cruise mission, with the message: “I am warning you again. Leave immediately or we will take further actions.”
The use of English by Chinese forces is not unknown. In October 2018, the destroyer Lanzhou was tracking and monitoring the Kaga, a Japanese helicopter destroyer which was refuelling from an American supply ship in the South China Sea.
After the Chinese ship greeted its Japanese counterpart in English by radio, the Kaga is reported to have replied, “Chinese warship 170, this is Japanese warship 184. Over.”
The Lanzhou responded with: “Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force 184. This is Chinese warship 170. Good morning. Nice to meet you. Over.”