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The US-China Maritime Surveillance Debate
Two Chinese trawlers stop directly in front of the USNS Impeccable in a 2009 confrontation over U.S. ISR activities.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo

The US-China Maritime Surveillance Debate

 
 

The Australian Defense Department confirmed that last week a Chinese Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) vessel monitored the U.S.-Australia Talisman Sabre joint military exercises from within Australia’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This “first-ever” Chinese incursion of its type in Australia’s EEZ has sparked an international reaction. Many officials and analysts are accusing China of hypocrisy because it is undertaking intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in other countries’ EEZs while opposing those of the United States in its own EEZ. But there are significant differences in scale, technological capability, methods, and objectives between what China and the United States are doing.

In 2012, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) undertook the first maritime intelligence collection mission in the U.S. EEZ around Guam and then Hawaii. Then in 2014 an uninvited PLAN AGI vessel operated in Hawaii’s EEZ to observe the multinational RIMPAC 2014 naval exercise. This event was well publicized by the U.S. Defense Department. According to then-Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) Admiral Samuel Locklear, “The good news about this is that it’s a recognition, I think, or an acceptance by the Chinese of what we’ve been saying to them for some time, [which] is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s EEZs, where you have … your own national security interest, are within international law and are acceptable.”

But such comparisons are misleading and potentially dangerous. They can lead to the false hope that China will eventually “see the light” and quietly assent to activities it considers threatening because it is undertaking “similar activities.”

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However, the scale of U.S. ISR missions against China is an order of magnitude greater than that of China against the United States. For example, as of 2017, the PLAN had only three AGI vessels. Of course China also has ISR planes, drones, and satellites but their number and capabilities also pale in comparison to those of U.S. assets.

Indeed, the U.S. has a huge and bewildering array of ISR planes, surface vessels, submarines, satellites, and drones, many with specialized functions like the subhunter Impeccable. It has by far the world’s largest and most capable force of signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft. Moreover, most of the U.S. Navy’s top-of-the-line combatants, like the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — as well as its submarines — are equipped to carry out SIGINT missions. Further, China’s assets do not even come close to the United States’ number and array of unmanned aircraft and seacraft (drones), particularly their range and advanced weapons and sensors, coupled with the necessary satellite and telecommunications support systems. The U.S. satellite ISR capacity greatly exceeds that of China. In terms of deployment, the United States flies hundreds of manned ISR missions every year along China’s coast; there have been no public reports of any Chinese aerial ISR missions off the U.S. mainland coast.

There are other major differences in technological capabilities, techniques, and objectives. Yes, China does insert ISR platforms into other countries’ EEZs — like that of Japan. But it is likely that Chinese capabilities are so substantially inferior to those of the U.S. as to be in a separate, much lower category. They are mostly passive listening versus U.S. active probing and electronic interference with, and even manipulation of, communications.

But this is unconfirmed because the U.S. is not transparent when it comes to ISR capabilities. Ironically, the United States has previously criticized China for not being transparent enough. As Locklear said of China’s military modernization: “What we should be concerned about though is what we perceive as a lack of transparency on their part in why they are building the type of systems they are building. Quite frankly, it makes their neighbors nervous and it gives us some cause for concern here at PACOM.”

To convince skeptics that there is anything near parity between the ISR capabilities of China and the United States, those making the “China does the same thing” argument — especially those in the U.S. Navy — need to reveal exactly what it is that the United States is doing in China’s near seas so that all can evaluate it for themselves.

In general, it is known that U.S. ISR assets collect communications between the target country’s command-and-control centers and radar and weapons systems, including surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and fighter aircraft. Other U.S. ISR probes collect “actionable” intelligence for expeditionary and irregular warfare.

Incidents involving ISR aircraft like the EP-3 and the Poseidon P-8A, as well as the U.S. Navy ships Bowditch, Impeccable, and Cowpens, may have collectively included active “tickling” of China’s coastal defenses to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore-to-ship and submarine communications, violation or abuse of the consent regime for marine scientific research, damage to the environment, and tracking China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting.

If so, these are not the sort of passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by many states — including China. Rather they are intrusive, provocative, and controversial practices that may be considered a threat to use force or violations of both China’s marine scientific consent and its environmental protection regimes. This could occur when and if the P-8A drops sonobuoys (which is part of its repertoire) or the Impeccable and Bowditch deploy “scientific instruments” in China’s EEZ.  Indeed, China’s EEZ environment may be degraded if U.S. sonar systems or live fire exercises adversely affect fish and mammals like whales and dolphins.

But much of the detail of U.S. ISR activities targeting China are unconfirmed. What do we — the public — know?

A confidential U.S. Navy-National Security Agency (NSA) report revealed by Edward Snowden shows that in the 2001 U.S.-China EP-3 incident, which saw a U.S. surveillance aircraft make an emergency landing in China after a collision with a Chinese fighter, the crew was unable to destroy all the secret data and systems on board. The report details the scope of secrets exposed to China.

The exposed information contained the fact that the United States has “the ability to locate and collect transmissions to or from Chinese submarines and to correlate them to specific vessels.” The plane also carried data that clarified “how much the U.S. knew about China’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles program.” Lending credibility to previous speculation, the report revealed that the ISR missions spur targeted militaries to react, thus creating communications that can be intercepted.

So it does appear that the United States has a huge advantage over China when it comes to ISR. Unlike Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, China does not oppose all foreign military activities in its EEZ without its permission. However, China certainly does object by word and deed to what it perceives as U.S. abuse of the right of freedom of navigation and a threat to use force.

In sum, China believes that these activities violate the peaceful purpose and uses provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as its UNCLOS EEZ resource rights and environmental obligations. China also thinks that the United States is “preparing the battlefield” and that this constitutes a violation of the UN Charter as well as UNCLOS. In particular, China alleges that the United States is not abiding by its obligation to pay “due regard” to Chinese rights and duties as a coastal state. Such due regard in the EEZ is required by UNCLOS for both the coastal state and the user state, but the term is undefined.

These concerns may or may not be valid. But given the difference in the scope of their ISR activities, China is probably not violating these UNCLOS provisions with its AGI vessel activities — and the United States may well be doing so on a grand scale. The United States may want to reconsider and modify its dubious argument that both are doing the same thing.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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