Maritime Game-Changer Revealed at Shangri-La Dialogue
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Maritime Game-Changer Revealed at Shangri-La Dialogue


For years, China has criticized the surveillance activities of U.S. naval vessels in its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Now China has begun, in however small a way, to do the same thing off Guam and Hawaii. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, this may prove to be in the interests of peace, stability and security right across Indo-Pacific Asia.

The revelation came on June 1, at the maritime security session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s leading informal defense gathering.

It is common knowledge that China has long resented and pushed back against the presence of American surveillance ships and aircraft off its coast. China considers this bad for its national interest – after all, the Americans are presumably collecting data on Chinese military activities, among other things.  China also presumably sees the ongoing presence as an insult to its national pride, a reminder of a history of humiliation by foreign powers.

Thus it was striking to hear a Chinese military officer reveal in an open discussion at this conference on Saturday that China had “thought of reciprocating” by “sending ships and planes to the US EEZ”. He then went further and announced that China had in fact done so “a few times”, although not on a daily basis (unlike the U.S. presence off China). 

This is big news, as it is the first time China has confirmed what the Pentagon claimed last month in a low-key way in its annual report on Chinese military power. Buried on page 39 was the following gem:

“the PLA Navy has begun to conduct military activities within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other nations, without the permission of those coastal states. Of note, the United States has observed over the past year several instances of Chinese naval activities in the EEZs around Guam and Hawaii … While the United States considers the PLA Navy activities in its EEZ to be lawful, the activity undercuts China’s decades-old position that similar foreign military activities in China’s EEZ are unlawful.”

It certainly does. And the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, who was present when the Chinese officer made the revelation, has now confirmed to the media that such Chinese operations are occurring

To be absolutely fair and accurate, the Chinese officer did not say explicitly whether the Chinese ships (and/or aircraft) were actively collecting intelligence, or whether they were just venturing near U.S. territory to make a political point. But it would seem odd that they would forgo the opportunity to conduct surveillance. And he did say “reciprocating”.

Why is this revelation so strategically and diplomatically important? A few reasons. First, it amounts to a sign of a Chinese realization that its interpretation of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea is not in its long-term interests. That interpretation has been that freedom of navigation does not include the right to conduct surveillance in another country’s EEZ. Most countries, including the United States, consider such surveillance to be a peaceful activity allowed under the convention. (To be clear, all including America agree that peacetime intelligence-gathering within the 12 nautical mile limit of anyone else’s territorial waters is a big no-no.)

As China’s economic and strategic interests, and naval capabilities, extend ever further from its shores, it seems that some within the Chinese security establishment are anticipating future benefit from their own country having the legal right to gather intelligence in other countries’ EEZs. After all, if they had continued their old policy, perhaps a third of the world’s maritime space would have been barred to their operational activity, at least in legal terms.

But for now, if China is indeed conducting the occasional surveillance foray in America’s EEZ, then it is technically in breach of its own interpretation of sea law.

Moreover, if China is admitting that it is starting to compete with America at its own game, then this could be read as an acknowledgement that the U.S. Navy is not going to be persuaded to give up its surveillance in East Asian waters. Incidents like the harassment of the USNS Impeccable in 2009 were generally believed to have been part of a campaign to push the Americans back. It is fair to speculate that China now recognizes that that campaign has failed and that it needs to try a new tack.

This may well explain why China seems less intent than a few years ago on pursuing risky encounters with American ships and planes – incidents that could conceivably have escalated to confrontation, even conflict. In accepting Chinese visits to its own EEZ, the United States is showing that this kind of “reciprocity” is normal, and far preferable to a heightened risk of war.

All of this may also help explain why maritime risk-reduction talks and military-military dialogues between China and the United States seem to be making progress.  If China really is beginning to experiment with voyages by its spy-ships to America’s Pacific islands, perhaps that will turn out to be good news for everyone.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Lowy Institute blog The Interpreter,, which broke the story.

June 16, 2013 at 11:12

Lets not forget that the last time the US military thought it can beat China, the US military got the most humiliating defeat in the history of the American existence. The Korean War proved beyond a doubt that the US military is not invincible as the mouthpiece propaganda from the American regime spews. The PLA made the US military to retreat from the Yalu river to South Korea.

Chinese submarines also sneaked up on American carriers undetected, which shows PLAN submarines are the quietest submarines in the world which will make American aircraft carriers just sitting ducks.

China is more than capable of putting the US military into the scrap heap of history!

papa john
June 6, 2013 at 02:50

Maybe PLAN can send their boasting "Laoning" to New Orleans so I can gamble and have a few drinks with their Chinese hostesses for a few hours.

USS Virginia
June 4, 2013 at 14:41

Meaning: Chinese SSN's have done a few patols, they do not do many patrols period, hoping to see how close they could get to US islands without being detected and this detection made known to them by a sonar lashing from a US SSN that has been tailing them, probably since they left port.

Answer: Not that close.

There is probably a US SSN sitting on the bottom of every harbor with a PLAN base monitoring the comings and goings of the PLAN. As it should be.

To paraphrae Mao: Naval supremancy flows from a torpedo tube.

June 4, 2013 at 11:34

I have no doubt China is just trying to stroke its own ego. US Naval power is stronger then the rest of the world's navies combined. China, I'm sure knows this better than I do. They are just trying to put on a show for their own people. 

June 4, 2013 at 11:20

China has a few old nuclear subs and one old carrier. I'm not really worried. 

Oro Invictus
June 4, 2013 at 05:20

@ vic, Dick, and Errol

…You fellows do realize I’m not actually criticizing the PRC government’s decision to send ships into the US EEZ, don’t you? I’m simply noting that the timing of their admission to it was extraordinarily inopportune.

Unless, of course, the PRC government continues condemning US entry into their EEZs while engaging in this practice; in that case they are actually being completely duplicitous. Even children know that if another child pokes you and you respond by poking them back in kind, you can’t really complain about that person poking you.  To reiterate that old aphorism TDog utilized, such behaviour is a case of “Do as I say and not as I do” (a phrase which has truly fascinating lexicological origins, appearing to originate from the Book of St. Matthew, in the form “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not”).

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief