Asia Pacific

China ship spies on U.S.-led naval drills

Bloomberg, Reuters

China sent a surveillance vessel to waters off Hawaii even as the country participated for the first time in the world’s largest international naval exercise led by the U.S.

The auxiliary general intelligence ship is outside U.S. territorial seas, yet within the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, Capt. Darryn James, chief spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in an e-mailed statement Sunday. The vessel is not associated with the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or Rimpac, that’s now underway, he said.

“U.S. naval forces continually monitor all maritime activity in the Pacific, and we expect this ship will remain outside of U.S. territorial seas and not operate in a manner that disrupts the ongoing Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise,” James said.

Still, James said he was unaware of any participant doing something similar since the drills began in 1971.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time a nation has ever sent a surveillance ship near Hawaii while also having invited ships participating in the Rimpac exercise,” James said.

China sent the second-largest contingent to this year’s Rimpac, after being invited to participate by the U.S. for the first time. Designed to foster international cooperation as China’s navy expands its capabilities, the presence of the surveillance vessel has raised questions among some of the other countries taking part.

“This is not the first time we’ve been under surveillance while we’re operating or exercising,” said Per Rostad, commanding officer of the Royal Norwegian Navy’s Fridtjof Nansen. “However, one might say it’s a bit novel when you participate in an exercise with participating units,” said Rostad, who worked alongside the Chinese navy to transport chemical weapons from Syria.

While China is taking part in this year’s Rimpac, its forces are being kept out of most of the exercises’ core combat components. The country has sent four ships — missile destroyer Haikou, frigate Yueyang, supply ship Qiandaohu and the Peace Ark medical ship.

“You don’t really see exercises on this scale in Europe,” Rostad said. “The amount of fighter aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft, the amount of submarines, the amount of different types of targets to fire ordnance.”

International law provides freedom of navigation through a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The U.S. recognizes and respects the right of all nations to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight beyond any coastal nation’s territorial seas according to international law, James said, in reference to the Chinese surveillance ship.

China has long complained about U.S. surveillance activities off China’s coast within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2009, China said that a U.S. Navy surveillance ship conducted activity in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Yellow Sea that violated international and Chinese laws. The USNS Victorious didn’t seek China’s permission, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at the time.

The exercises come at a time when tensions are high between Beijing and U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines over China’s pressing of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. They also come after a dispute with Vietnam that led to one of the worst breakdowns in ties since they fought a brief war in 1979.