The top U.S. commander in the Pacific said he welcomes China’s spying on the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercises.
As The Diplomat previously noted, China sent an uninvited Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) ship to the 22-nation maritime exercise off the coast of Hawaii this month. The ship, which is operating inside Hawaii’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is “designed to gather electronic and communication data from surrounding vessels and aircraft,” according to USNI News. Although China sent a similar vessel to observe the RIMPAC exercise in 2012, this year China is actually participating in the exercise for the first time.
But Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM)– which leads RIMPAC– is not only unconcerned about China’s surveillance, he appears to actually welcome it in some regards. When asked about the AGI ship’s presence at RIMPAC during a press conference on Tuesday, the admiral began by responding:
“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 national — your own national security interest, are within international law and are acceptable. And this is a fundamental right that nations have.”
Locklear appeared to be referring to China’s long-standing opposition to the U.S. and other foreign navies operating in its own EEZ, which stretch out 200 nautical miles from a country’s coast. Although the UN Convention on the Law of Seas guarantees free navigation for peaceful vessels in other countries’ EEZ, Beijing has long maintained that surveillance does not meet this peaceful standard.
This disagreement has led Chinese vessels to repeatedly harass U.S. Navy ships operating in China’s EEZ. At times, Beijing has formally called on the U.S. Navy to cease its operations in China’s EEZ. For example, in 2009 China’s Defense Ministry released a statement saying that:
“China believes the constant U.S. military air and sea surveillance and survey operations in China’s exclusive economic zone had led to military confrontations between the two sides. The way to resolve China-U.S. maritime incidents is for the U.S. to change its surveillance and survey operations policies against China, decrease and eventually stop such operations.”
However, after reports surfaced of the AGI’s surveillance of RIMPAC, China’s Defense Ministry resolutely defended the operation, stating: “The People’s Liberation Army naval ships’ operation in waters outside the territorial seas of other countries is in line with international law and international practice.”
Thus, Locklear’s comments on Tuesday appear to be aimed at seizing this opportunity to reinforce America’s right to have U.S. naval vessels survey China from within its EEZ.
Nonetheless, Locklear did remark that it was odd for a country participating in a maritime exercise for the first time to also send a surveillance vessel to spy on that exercise. He began by saying that he believes the Chinese recognize their participation at RIMPAC is “an opportunity for them to interact on a broad scale with 22 nations, some of them that they have disagreements with in other areas. And it’s an opportunity to build trust and confidence.” The PACOM commander then added: “The introduction of the AGI kind of made it look a little odd, but it hasn’t stopped the exercise and it hasn’t created any difficulties in the exercise. And I guess on the other good side, it gives the Chinese the opportunity to see how their own ships are doing… which I understand is pretty good.”
Locklear has overseen PACOM at a time when the U.S. and China have significantly strengthened their military-to-military relationship, even as maritime tensions throughout the region continue to rise.
He has long urged China’s military to be more transparent. For instance, in an interview with The Diplomat last year, 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 about the type of military they are building and the type of equipment they are buying. I have discussed this with my Chinese counterparts.”