China defends dispatch of spy ship to monitor US-led naval drills off Hawaii

Beijing sent surveillance vessel despite PLA Navy's participation in Rimpac exercises

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 11:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 7:09pm

Beijing has defended its dispatch of a spy ship to international waters off Hawaii, near where Chinese vessels are taking part in a US-led naval exercise for the first time, reports said on Monday.

The defence ministry said the vessel’s activities are in line with international law, reported state-run Global Times.

Reports in the US quoted the US Navy saying that a Chinese surveillance vessel had been found operating near the location of the Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) naval exercises, viewed by analysts as one step toward potentially repairing ties at a time of heightened US-China tensions.

“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,” the defence ministry said.

“The Chinese side respect the rights of maritime countries in accordance with international laws, but also wishes relevant countries could respect the rights Chinese ships are entitled to enjoy by law,” it added.

The US Navy played down any intelligence risk associated with the proximity of the Chinese surveillance vessel and noted that China also sent a similar ship to monitor the last Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) exercise two years ago.

“We’ve taken all necessary precautions to protect our critical information,” said Captain Darryn James, chief spokesman of the US Pacific Fleet.

“We expect this ship will remain outside of US territorial seas and not operate in a manner that disrupts the ongoing Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise.”

US officials hope China’s participation in Rimpac helps avert misunderstandings on the high seas but analysts long cautioned the manoeuvres may ultimately help Beijing strengthen its growing naval capability by observing the forces of the United States and its allies.

Still, the United States also conducts surveillance operations in international waters and airspace and the navy did not voice protest over the appearance of the Chinese vessel, described as a Chinese Navy auxiliary general intelligence ship.

Even though the vessel was inside America’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, it was operating within international law, James said.

Still, James said he was unaware of any participant doing something similar since the drills began in 1971.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time a nation has ever sent a surveillance ship near Hawaii while also having invited ships participating in the Rimpac exercise,” James said.

The Chinese ships participating in the drills are the missile destroyer Haikou, the missile frigate Yueyang, the supply ship Qiandaohu and the hospital ship Peace Ark.

Chinese forces include two helicopters, a commando unit and a diving unit, a total of 1,100 personnel.

The exercises come at a time when tensions are high between Beijing and US allies such as Japan and the Philippines over China’s pressing of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. They also come after a dispute with Vietnam that led to one of the worst breakdowns in ties since they fought a brief war in 1979.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters