It has become common knowledge of that the US has been carrying out surveillance operations of the coast of China for years, with US naval vessels freely operating within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. However, deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Qi Jianguo, announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2013, that the PLA Navy are now countering these provocative actions by conducting the same activity of the coast of Gaum and Hawaii.
Qi Jianguo commented that 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 marks the first open announcement by the PLA of what the Pentagon had claimed in its annual report on Chinese military power. On page 39 of the report the US claimed:
“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.”
Jianguo never explicitly implied what kind of activities the PLA is conducting of the coast of Gaum and Hawaii, so whether this is just a political statement, or whether the PLA is actively carrying out surveillance operations is up for debate.
China has often complained about these operations accusing the US of violating international law by operating inside China’s 200-nautical-mile economic zone, in an attempt to contain and collect data on Chinese military activities. The US has rebutted these statements, instead claiming that the vessels are conducting military oceanographic surveillance and that transit and surveillance activities are allowed under international law. Commercial activities such as mining or fishing are controlled within the economic zone, while surveillance is a little more ambiguous. Despite the US claims of legality, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea allows for “Innocent passage,” which would not cover spying activities which would be viewed as a provocative action. Additionally, even though the US helped shape the UNCLOS and signed the 1994 Agreement on Implementation it has still not signed the convention, giving the US a unique legal exception. China ratified the convention back in 1996.
The frank announcement by the PLA seems to hint at a political manoeuvre to counteract US containment, a direct manoeuvre of US naval dominance in the Asia-Pacific. Now we have to ask, how the US will counteract this manoeuvre and whether this will lead to reciprocate accusations of Chinese surveillance and violations of international law.
The story of Chinese Naval patrols was originally broken on The Lowy Institute blog The Interpreter.
In another announcement at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung announced that it would not allow for the renewal of Cam Ranh Bay military base a dilapidated Russian base. The base was going to be updated by Moscow in 2012, while the US was also attempting to acquire the base. Being the increased Vietnamese and Russian cooperation and talks of renewing the base for ship maintenance for “military co-operation” rather than an actual military base as late as 2012, this could hint at US pressure for Vietnam to officially close the base. Russia’s naval chief, Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, commented in 2012 that “As part of this work at the international level, we are discussing issues related to the creation of [ship] maintenance stations in Cuba, in the Seychelles and in Vietnam.” With a renewed Russian militarization and a growing opposition to US global power this seems to be a liable explanation.
Photo courtesy of The PLA Daily