The littoral combat ship USS Independence is underway in a formation of 42 ships and submarines from 15 international partner nations during Rim of the Pacific 2014. (Ensign Joseph Pfaff / US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The head of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command said Tuesday that it’s “a little odd” the Chinese government has sent a spy ship to trail the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise currently taking place off the coast of Hawaii — an exercise in which China has four ships and 1,100 personnel participating.
But the Pentagon’s top military official in Asia, Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, quickly added, “the good news about this is that it’s a recognition, I think, or acceptance by the Chinese for what we’ve been saying to them for some time. Military operations and survey operations in another country’s [exclusive economic zone] are within international law and are acceptable. This is a fundamental right nations have.”
The fact that China is now doing what it has long complained about the United States doing off the Chinese coast —gathering signals intelligence — hasn’t rankled US officials or disrupted the RIMPAC exercise, Locklear insisted.
China has laid claim to vast swaths of the South and East China seas despite the fact that their claims are not supported by international law.
There have been several incidents in recent years where Chinese ships have taken an aggressive posture against US naval vessels operating within 200 miles of the Chinese coast in order to collect signals intelligence —American activities that fall well within international law.
The Chinese snooping “hasn’t stopped the exercise and it hasn’t created any difficulties for the exercise” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
This year marks the first time since RIMPAC began in 1971 that China has participated in the event.
Sending the intelligence gathering ship to within 200 miles of the US coast “is within the law and it’s their right to do it,” Locklear said. The RIMPAC exercise is “an opportunity to build trust and confidence” between countries operating in the Pacific. He added, however, that “the introduction of the AGI [spy ship] kind of made it look a little odd.”
In the coming weeks, the Chinese military will be conducting it’s unilateral “Blue Whale” exercise in the East China Sea featuring about 20 Chinese ships, and Locklear assured the Pentagon press corps that US will keep an eye on the proceedings, just as it always has.
“We all kind of keep an eye on each other” the PACOM chief said. ■