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Last week, I wrote on China’s brash decision to send a spy ship to the US-sponsored RIMPAC naval exercises, exercises to which, it should be noted, China’s navy had been invited for the first time to participate. In addition to the four legitimate Chinese vessels that took part in the 22-nation exercises, Beijing decided to dispatch what some observers called one of its most advanced communications and electronic intelligence gathering ships to shadow US and allied vessels just outside American territorial waters, but inside the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Yesterday, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, addressed the Chinese action by saying that it could be considered “good news.” The reason? “It’s a recognition, I think, or acceptance by the Chinese that what we’ve been saying to them for some time is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s [maritime zones] are within international law and are acceptable,” according to Locklear. The import of the Admiral’s comments appear to be that China, by openly sending one of its ships to spy in America’s EEZ, must therefore accept the legitimacy of America’s similar actions in China’s EEZ’s, whether those are around islands or off the Chinese coast line. By analogy, he is saying that both sides will continue to throw elbows under the basketball net, but as long as the Chinese don’t cry foul, then the game is going better since both players now accept the rules.
Perhaps Admiral Locklear is right. If so, we will see in China’s actions. Yet his comments might just as easily be wishful thinking. China has steadfastly refused to reciprocate to the same level of American openness and transparency. The US Navy, in particular, has repeatedly tried to build confidence between it and the PLA Navy, only to reap little in return besides quickly-forgotten photo ops with senior officers. Meanwhile, American leaders continue to ask for more exchanges and meetings to improve relations, and potentially dangerous incidents at sea continue to occur. Thus, it is just as likely that Beijing will continue to complain about US surveillance activities in waters it claims, and may well continue to dangerously harass US naval vessels.
Locklear did mention that it looked a “little odd” that China dispatched its spy ship to the friendly exercises. It is more telling than that. While the US Navy may choose to interpret China’s action in a legalistic manner, i.e., that China “recognizes” the right to military surveillance in EEZs, it is a far greater admission that Beijing views the United States with precisely the deep and enduring distrust that America’s senior military leaders have hoped to dispel by good-faith moves such as asking the Chinese to participate at all in RIMPAC. There is, I would argue, little reason to cheer China’s act of bad faith, and even less reason to try and gloss it over.
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