Are Chinese Navy Spy Ships Within Exclusive Economic Zones Soon to Be a Fact of Life?

China’s double standard on military surveillance within exclusive economic zones becomes clearer.

Are Chinese Navy Spy Ships Within Exclusive Economic Zones Soon to Be a Fact of Life?
Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

On Saturday, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 815 Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) ship monitored joint exercises between the United States and Australia as part of the ongoing Talisman Sabre exercise. The PLAN vessel that monitored the drills was the Haiwangxing (pennant number 852), which is one of two Type 815 AGIs with the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet.

“The Chinese vessel has remained outside Australian territorial waters but inside the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Coral Sea,” the Australian Defense Department said in a statement. “The vessel’s presence has not detracted from the exercise objectives. Australia respects the rights of all states to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters in accordance with international law,” the statement added.

Despite the official statement, Australian defense officials told local media that they found the act to be “unfriendly” and “provocative.” This was the first time China sent a warship designed explicitly for military surveillance into Australia’s EEZ. In 2014, the Australian Air Force monitored three PLAN warships conducting an exercise within the EEZ between Christmas Island and Indonesia. Those exercises followed the PLAN’s transit of the strategic Sunda Strait.

What’s notable with this recent incident is that it comes just shortly after another Type 815 AGI, the Tianlangxing, surveilled a recent U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile test off the coast of Alaska earlier in July. That vessel also transited the Tsugaru Strait, which separates the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, briefly entering Japan’s territorial waters in the process.

Taken together, these two incidents involving PLAN AGI vessels are suggestive of China acquiescing to more conventional understandings of military freedom of navigation by countries including the United States, Japan, and Australia. In the South China Sea, for example, China repeatedly protests military activities by U.S. and other warships within its exclusive economic zone and even innocent passage activities with the territorial sea of disputed islands.

The United States, meanwhile, has long pointed out that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. Navy treats as customary international law, explicitly allows for military activities of this sort inside the EEZ. That’s why Washington did not protest the AGI’s surveillance of the THAAD test and why the recent official Australian statement on the AGI’s surveillance of the Talisman Sabre exercises did not express alarm.

Unofficially, however, both Canberra and Washington do worry about the PLAN’s increasing confidence as an expeditionary navy, which has now manifested in two highly unusual surveillance voyages by PLAN AGI vessels. Behavior of this sort first gained serious attention when a Type 815 AGI surveilled the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercises, where the PLAN was invited as a participant for the first time. However, these recent incidents could foreshadow a new era of repeated surveillance by the PLAN outside of the first island chain.

If Washington and its partners want to preserve the legal norm of freedom of navigation, however, they cannot begrudge the PLAN’s activities. Instead, when Beijing protests similar activities within its own EEZ in the South and East China Seas, there will be a clearer double standard that can be highlighted.