01 August 2014

China’s RIMPAC Spying: Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

Very important piece by Shannon Tiezzi. It explains clearly how China is trying to have it both ways with regard to conducting maritime intelligence collection activities in another nation’s EEZ. That’s why Emily de La Bruyere and I quote leading international legal scholar Jerome Cohen in our recent article in The National Interest on the subject: “I demand freedom from you in the name of your principles. I deny it to you in the name of mine.” This summarizes Beijing’s argument perfectly–a divisive approach that contravenes the fundamental principle on which international law is based: reciprocity. There’s an excellent Chinese equivalent for that term as well–有来有往… The “New-Type Navy-to-Navy Relations” concept that Beijing is now promoting won’t work if China keeps trying to hold the United States to a different, more restrictive standard than it demands for itself.

Shannon Tiezzi, “China’s RIMPAC Spying: Having Your Cake and Eating It Too,” The Diplomat, 1 August 2014.

China’s RIMPAC surveillance reveals a troubling disconnect in its interpretation of freedom of navigation.

… Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, was remarkably upbeat about the revelation that a Chinese auxiliary general-intelligence ship was shadowing the RIMPAC drills within Hawaii’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Locklear saw the Chinese vessel’s presence as “an acceptance by the Chinese of what we’ve been saying to them for some time, [which] is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s EEZs … are within international law and are acceptable.” …

However, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman made it clear that China’s position has not changed. Geng Yasheng, speaking at the ministry’s regular monthly press conference, defended the presence of China’s AGI vessel in the Hawaiian EEZ, saying that the vessel was acting in line with international law. “We hope the U.S. [will] respect the legitimate rights of the Chinese ship,” Geng said, and the U.S. navy has shown every indication of doing so.

Still, China’s position that its own ship is acting lawfully doesn’t seem to have changed its dislike for similar actions by U.S. vessels. Geng objected to a comparison between the two: “The activities of the Chinese navy ship, no matter in terms of scope, frequency, or pattern, can not be compared to the U.S. ship and aircraft’s high intensity close-in reconnaissance against China.” 

Chinese official have long listed U.S. surveillance missions as one of three factors limiting U.S.-China military relations (with the other two being U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. congressional restrictions on mil-to-mil interactions). In an indication that China will holds fast to this position, Geng argued that U.S. reconnaissance missions near China “severely compromise China’s national security and can easily trigger accidents at sea and in the air.” …

So it seems that China wants to both vigorously defend its right to conduct reconnaissance missions near the U.S. while also denying the U.S. the same right. But how? In his defense of the Chinese AGI ship’s operations near Hawaii, Geng emphasized that the mission “is in line with the international law and domestic law of the U.S.” The latter may hold the key to understanding China’s position, as Andrew S. Erickson and Emily de La Bruyere suggest in their analysis of China’s RIMPAC surveillance.

Erickson and de La Bruyere point out that China wants to use domestic laws to justify its seemingly contradictory stance. The U.S., which believes in free navigation, even for surveillance activities, within EEZs, has no domestic laws restricting such missions. China does. Thus Beijing can insist upon the legality of its operations near Hawaii based on U.S. domestic law, even while denying the U.S. the same right based on Chinese domestic law.

China’s position on surveillance and (more broadly) on freedom of navigation and overflight in its EEZ has important ramifications for China’s territorial disputes. Thus far, Beijing has insisted that U.S. concerns about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are completely unfounded. But China apparently also wants to insist that all countries adhere to its domestic laws within its EEZ, an area that is more usually considered international waters. Under the Chinese “nine-dash line” claim, most of the South China Sea would fall under Beijing’s jurisdiction — and thus be closed to surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

For the article cited here, see Andrew S. Erickson and Emily de La Bruyere, “China’s RIMPAC Maritime-Surveillance Gambit,” The National Interest, 29 July 2014.

Further information & analysis:

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.

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