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China Spy Ship Lurks as Vessels Join U.S. in Naval Drill

By Bloomberg News
July 20, 2014 11:05 PM EDT 69 Comments
Japan Self-Defense Force members attend a landing operation as a part of the 'Pacific Rim' joint exercise in Kaneohe, Hawaii, on July 1, 2014.
Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Japan Self-Defense Force members attend a landing operation as a part of the 'Pacific Rim' joint exercise in Kaneohe, Hawaii, on July 1, 2014.

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, Captain Darryn James, chief spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The vessel is not associated with the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or Rimpac, that’s now under way, 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.

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.

‘Bad Signal’

“It sends a bad signal,” said Ben Schreer, a senior analyst for defense strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “There was a lot of good will on the American side that said ‘despite what you have been doing in the East and South China Sea recently, we invited you to this prestigious exercise and what you do is blatantly put this spy ship in the area.’ ”

China has been been taking a more assertive stance in territorial spats with Japan in the East China Sea and the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, which has raised tensions in the region.

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.

“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.

‘Double Standards’

“You don’t really see exercises on this scale in Europe,” he 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’s Defense Ministry said the movements of the Chinese ship in international waters complied with international law, the state-owned Global Times reported.

“China respects the rights enjoyed by all relevant coastal states under international law, and hopes that relevant countries respect the rights enjoyed by Chinese ships according to the law,” an official in the ministry’s news department was quoted as saying.

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 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.

“What it shows is that China is applying double standards here,” Schreer said.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Henry Sanderson in Beijing at hsanderson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Jake Lloyd-Smith, Neil Western

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