On Wednesday we noted, with some alarm, that just as Xi Jinping was busy putting China’s military might on display for the entire world to observe via a massive parade (a parade which, incidentally, provided China’s weary masses with some much needed mental relief after weeks of hand-wringing over stock market meltdowns and deadly chemical explosions), the Chinese navy was spotted off the coast of Alaska. “It’s difficult to tell [what they’re doing] exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” a Pentagon official told WSJ, adding that, "it’s different."
To that, we said the following: “Different" indeed, as in "uprecedented", and while we won’t endeavor to jump to conclusions, we would note that the PLA hasn’t exactly been shy when it comes to challenging the US from a maritime perspective of late and of course, the US has had its ships and carriers to the east and south of China for decades, so it would appear that Xi is intent on giving Washington a taste of its own medicine.
Today, we get a bit more detail on the “incident” and as it turns out, the ships were a little closer than you might have thought. In fact, as WSJ reports, they came within 12 nautical miles of the U.S. coast. Here’s more:
Chinese navy ships off the coast of Alaska in recent days weren’t just operating in the area for the first time: They also came within 12 nautical miles of the U.S. coast, making a rare foray into U.S. territorial waters, according to the Pentagon.
Pentagon officials said for the first time late Thursday that the five Chinese navy ships had passed through U.S. territorial waters as they transited the Aleutian Islands, but said they had complied with international law.
Analysts saw the passage as significant as Beijing has long objected to U.S. Navy vessels transiting its territorial waters or operating in international waters just outside.
The five Chinese ships “transited expeditiously and continuously through the Aleutian Island chain in a manner consistent with international law,” a Pentagon spokesman said. Pentagon officials also confirmed that the vessels came within 12 nautical miles of the U.S. coast.
U.S. officials believe China is building a “blue-water” navy capable of operating far from its shores, while also developing missiles and other capabilities designed to prevent the U.S. Navy from intervening in a conflict in Asia.
Many of those capabilities, including a new antiship ballistic missile, were put on display for the first time on Thursday in a military parade in Beijing to mark the surrender of Japanese forces at the end of World War II.
There seem to be several key takeaways here. First, this comes just a few weeks ahead of Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the US. That visit, as detailed on Thursday evening, may already be clouded by expectations that Washington will announce sanctions as early as next week in connection with a series of cyber attacks that allegedly emanated from China. Thus China’s maritime forays could serve to make the trip even more tense than it already would have been.
Second, China’s operations in the Aleutians need to be looked at in the context of its recent activity in the South China Sea, where Beijing has constructed some 3,000 acres of sovereign territory atop reefs in the Spratlys. What seems clear here is that the PLA is intent on projecting its ability and willingness to unilaterally do as it pleases even if that means ruffling the feathers of US allies and even the US itself along the way. Additionally, as we mentioned on Thursday, the US has operated in and around China’s territorial waters for years, so there’s a “what’s good for the goose...” element at play here as well. Amusingly, one military expert turned this on its head when he told the Journal that now, “as a matter of fairness and equity”, the US will be able to point to the Chinese navy’s operations near Alaska as a justification for sailing near China’s islands in the Spratlys: “these operations are a big step forward for U.S. interests in that Beijing now has no basis to object to similar passage through China’s territorial sea by the U.S., for instance in vicinity of China’s islands in the South China Sea.”
Finally, it's worth mentioning that the South China Sea dispute and now the traversal of US territorial waters near Alaska hardly mark the only two notable examples of the Chinese navy expanding the scope of its operations this year. Recall that during the height of the Houthis' seige on Aden, the PLA navy inexplicably showed up to evacuate civilians. Here's a look at the scope of China's expanded naval activities:
Finally, lest anyone should think that suddenly China will be prepared to accept the excuse that because the US "allowed" the Chinese navy to pass by Alaska, Beijing will suddenly take an "it's only fair" approach to US ships in Chinese waters, we'll close with the following passage, also from the WSJ piece excerpted above.
Still, experts said it was doubtful that China would suddenly stop objecting to U.S. naval ships passing through its territorial waters or conducting surveillance in nearby international waters.