Maritime Game-Changer Revealed at Shangri-La Dialogue

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Maritime Game-Changer Revealed at Shangri-La Dialogue

A few words from a Chinese military officer in Singapore makes clear the game has changed in Asian maritime security.

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, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2013/06/01/Is-China-reciprocating-US-maritime-surveillance.aspx, which broke the story.