19 July 2014

Crashing Its Own Party: China’s Unusual Decision to Spy on Joint Naval Exercises

Andrew S. Erickson and Emily de La Bruyere, “Crashing Its Own Party: China’s Unusual Decision to Spy on Joint Naval Exercises,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2014.

A party crasher from China’s navy is enjoying an intelligence buffet at the world’s largest maritime gathering – and the feasting will make it hard for Beijing to condemn similar foreign activities in international waters close to China.

U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Darryn James said Saturday that a Chinese surveillance ship was operating near Hawaii “outside U.S. territorial seas.” That location puts the ship on the edges of the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific, or Rimpac, maritime exercises in which China is participating for the first time. One U.S. display map of the Rimpac operating zone, described to us by a civilian observer of the exercises, shows the Type 815 Dongdiao-class surveillance vessel sitting directly south of Oahu, near the U.S. Navy’s Ronald Reagan Strike Group and other ships.

This is the 24th time the Rimpac exercises, which typically occur around Hawaii and San Diego, have been held since they began in 1971. This year, they involve more than 250,000 personnel from 22 nations, as well as 49 surface ships, six submarines and over 200 aircraft.

This is not the first time that a Chinese surveillance ship has shown up uninvited. According to Capt. James, China sent a similar Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) ship to the area during the 2012 Rimpac exercise. While the Chinese Navy had not been invited in 2012, this year, four Chinese vessels – a supply ship, a missile frigate, a missile destroyer and a hospital ship – are participating as official guests. That gives China a presence larger than any other participant save the host.

The Dongdiao-class is an elite Chinese surveillance ship. For an operation that risks making the Chinese Navy look like an untactful guest, China would want to deploy the vessel least likely to make visible mistakes. It would therefore choose a particularly experienced vessel and crew for this mission. The most likely candidate is the Beijixing (pennant number 851) of the East Sea Fleet. Based on government and other media reports, Beijixing is China’s most advanced and well-traveled AGI, having operated frequently near and within Japan’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Regardless of which vessel China decided to send, its appearance near Hawaii undermines China’s efforts to exempt itself from similar surveillance.

Beijing has long argued—in opposition to international norms and the consensus of the vast majority of nations (pdf) —that it has the authority to prevent surveillance activities outside its territorial waters but within its claimed EEZ. On this basis, it has bitterly opposed lawful U.S. surveillance activities and engaged in dangerous harassment of U.S. platforms involved in them, most prominently in the Impeccable Incident of 2009.

Now, driven by its own maritime interests and trajectory, China is shifting on this issue, pursuing approaches that will complicate future opposition to similar U.S. surveillance activities.

“Chinese maritime intelligence collection operations increased in 2012,” the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Samuel Locklear told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April last year, “with historic first such missions into the Indian Ocean and within the U.S. exclusive economic zones off of Guam and Hawaii .” China’s acknowledgement at the 2013 Shangri La Dialogue of its conducting military surveillance in America’s undisputed EEZ may presage reduced opposition to similar activities in China’s own EEZ as China rises as a maritime power with access interests of its own.

For now, however, Beijing is living a contradiction while Washington adheres to long-established principles (pdf).

Capt. James did not disclose the specific coordinates of the Chinese surveillance ship, but did confirm that it was within the U.S.’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The Chinese Navy AGI ship’s presence did not violate international law and Capt. James made it clear that the U.S. would respect China’s right to freedom of navigation.

At the same time, he offered some words of caution: “U.S. naval forces continually monitor all maritime activity in the Pacific, and we expect this ship will remain outside of U.S. territorial seas and not operate in a manner that disrupts the ongoing Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise.”

The U.S. Navy declined to speculate on the capabilities or intent of the Chinese ship, putting the ball clearly in China’s court to explain what it is trying to accomplish. China’s Ministry of Defense has so far remained silent on the issue, though it will want to speak up soon. What happens at gatherings of this significance can stick in the memories of participants for years to come – and inform what future invitations are made .


Sam LaGrone, “China Sends Uninvited Spy Ship to RIMPAC,” USNI News, 18 July 2014.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China’s RIMPAC Debut: What’s in It for America?” The National Interest, 3 July 2014.