The Type 22 (NATO designation: Houbei class) cruise missile boat is a ship class in the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy. Credit: Handout.

They’re fast, around 36 or 38 knots, and also well-armed.

Each boat boasts eight launchers for YJ-83 subsonic anti-ship missiles and a fast-firing 30mm H/PJ-13 Gatling gun on the bow to engage aerial targets and provide fire support.

Short-range air defense is apparently entrusted to man-portable air defense systems operated by the crew. 

These prolific “chase” vessels — China has reportedly built at least 80 Type 022 fast-attack catamarans — were chiefly considered a coastal defense asset, up until now.

It seems they are now being used in a more expeditionary role, which could have major strategic implications for the South China Sea.

According to an exclusive report by Thomas Newdick at The War Zone, a Type 022 (NATO Houbei class) vessel has reportedly been involved in an incident with a boat chartered by a Philippine media company in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea.

Citing ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano, the craft appeared in the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef located in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The missile craft then apparently aggressively chased away the boat operated on behalf of the ABS-CBN news crew, which had been sailing in the area to monitor the movements of other Chinese vessels.

China’s Type 022 missile boat incorporates stealth features and are based on Australian-designed wave-piercing catamaran hulls that are more stable than other fast missile craft in high sea conditions. Credit: Handout.

“We were on our way to Ayungin Shoal [the Philippine name for Second Thomas Shoal] when a white Chinese Coast Guard ship headed toward us,” Zambrano said.

“It moved closer and closer, and we could see that through our lens. After that, it sent a radio communication and in English asked who we were and what we were doing in the area.”

The news team boat then apparently decided to head back to Palawan, at which point the fast-attack missile craft gave chase.

“Two smaller but faster ships chased us,” Zambrano recounted. “The ships were Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft with two missiles mounted.”

The incident comes after a succession of reported incidents of intimidation of Filipino fishermen by Chinese boats, as well as alleged illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in these waters, War Zone reported.

In March, the Philippine Coast Guard said it had identified no fewer than 220 Chinese ships at another nearby reef, in waters also under Philippine jurisdiction. 

It is not clear where these fast-attack missile craft operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fast-attack are operating from and whether any examples are now permanently or semi-permanently deployed at outposts in the South China Sea.

Approximately 83 TYpe 022 missile boats are currently in service with three flotillas, having been produced over a span of just seven years. Credit: Handout.

The boats only have a range of around 300 miles, but that can be extended with a supply ship, War Zone reported.

Last November, “multiple” Type 022s took part in Chinese maritime maneuvers in the South China Sea, together with three Type 071 amphibious assault ships.

This was part of what the Global Times described as “a real combat scenario drill, with the catamarans training in comprehensive attack and defense, air defense and anti-terrorism.”

As well as maritime activity in this area, the importance of the Spratly Islands to Beijing’s wider ambitions in the South China Sea has also been reflected in the construction of artificial outposts here, War Zone reported.

Three locations, in particular, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef have all been subject to significant artificial expansion by China since 2014.

They are defended by HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles and ground-launched YJ-12B anti-ship missiles, and all three are also equipped with long runways, at least some of which are capable of supporting bombers, War Zone reported.

The Spratly Islands have also been a regular host to long-range air patrols by Chinese fighters, including Su-30 Flankers.

However, having forward-deployed flotillas of Type 022s would provide an additional immediate layer of defense, as well as a way to strike outward against enemy naval forces from those bases.