China Is Spying on RIMPAC

Despite being a participant in RIMPAC, China has sent an electronic surveillance ship to spy on the maritime exercise.

China Is Spying on RIMPAC
Credit: flickr/ U.S. Pacific Fleet

China has sent an electronic surveillance ship to spy on the Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise, the U.S. Navy has announced.

On Friday, USNI News reported that a Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) ship arrived in waters right near the exercise just days before it began. According to USNI News, which quoted unnamed sources, that the ship is “designed to gather electronic and communication data from surrounding vessels and aircraft.”

The U.S. Pacific Command refused to confirm the exact type of ship that China had sent, or speculate about its purpose. However, Capt. Darryn James, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, told USNI News on Friday: “The U.S. Pacific Fleet has been monitoring a Chinese navy surveillance ship operating in the vicinity of Hawaii outside U.S. territorial seas…. 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.”

As The Diplomat has previously reported, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is participating in RIMPAC, the world’s largest naval exercise, for the first time this year. According to news reports, China has the second largest fleet at the exercise after the U.S. (and not counting, the uninvited AGI). According to Bloomberg Businessweek, it is comprised of the missile destroyer Haikou, the missile frigate Yueyang, the supply vessel Qiandaohu, the Peace Ark hospital ship, two helicopters and a dive unit, along with 1,100 personnel.

China sent a similar AGI ship to spy on RIMPAC last time it was held in 2012. It wasn’t an official participant in the exercise that time around.

On Saturday, Capt. James– the U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson– sought to downplay the presence of the ship. “It has not entered the territorial seas of the U.S. and it is in accordance with international law regarding freedom of navigation,” Capt. James said in a statement released to the Wall Street Journal. He explained that the ship was in Hawaii’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The U.S. maintains that freedom of navigation for all international ships extend to countries’ EEZs, and it has long maintained ships inside China’s EEZ.

While noting that China had not informed the U.S. that the ship would be deployed there beforehand, Capt. James said, “We are not surprised that it’s here…. We’ve taken all precautions necessary to protect our critical information.”

China’s Ministry of Defense also told the Wall Street Journal that the PLA’s ships respect international law. “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.” Beijing has long opposed U.S. Navy operations within its own EEZ.