China sends spy ship to monitor US-led Rimpac war games off Hawaii

Surveillance vessel may be used to get information about communication channels, but it’s not breaking international law, military experts say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 7:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 7:57pm

China has sent a spy ship to monitor the US-led Rim of the Pacific drill under way in waters off Hawaii, according to US media reports, after its navy was excluded from the event amid simmering tensions over the South China Sea.

Chinese military experts said the ship could be used to obtain information about communication channels, but it was not breaking international law by being there.

US Pacific Fleet spokesman Captain Charlie Brown told USNI News on Friday that a Chinese surveillance ship had been operating within 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone off the coast of Hawaii since Wednesday.

“The US Pacific Fleet has been monitoring a Chinese navy surveillance ship operating in the vicinity of Hawaii outside US territorial seas,” Brown was quoted as saying.

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

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The PLA Navy auxiliary general intelligence ship is a Dongdiao-class – the type China has previously sent to monitor the war games in both 2016 and 2014, the report said.

The Pentagon initially asked China to take part in this year’s Rimpac exercise – the world’s biggest international naval drill held biennially – but withdrew the invitation in May, saying Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea ran counter to international norms.

China denounced the US decision, saying it was a “non-constructive move”.

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Beijing-based navy expert Li Jie said it was standard practice for countries to send surveillance ships to keep an eye on the military exercises of other nations.

“What the Chinese ship is doing is perfectly legal under international law, as long as they keep a distance of at least 12 nautical miles. These ships usually operate somewhere more than 24 nautical miles from the coast,” Li said.

Xu Guangyu, a retired major general who now works at the state-run China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the spy ship was sent in response to the US stepping up surveillance of Chinese vessels in recent months.

“While it’s operating off Hawaii, the Chinese surveillance ship could acquire some information about the communication frequencies or channels being used during the Rimpac exercise,” he added.

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Researcher Terence Yeung, who specialises in strategic studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, also said the ship could also be used to intercept electronic information used in communications.

He said although the organisers would not want the ship around during the war games, there was nothing they could do about it.

“Those taking part certainly won’t welcome a third party spying on them during this exercise, no matter whether that third party has been invited to join them or not,” Yeung said.

Brown said the US fleet had taken all necessary precautions to protect critical information.