China’s RIMPAC Maritime-Surveillance Gambit

"The unprecedented decision to send a surveillance vessel while also participating in the RIMPAC exercises calls China’s proclaimed stance on international navigation rights into question."

Forty-nine ships from 22 countries, including China, are currently participating in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime training exercises off the coast of Hawaii. Submarines and aircraft have joined them. But last Friday, an electronic display map of the operating zone showed a fiftieth ship in the middle of the exercise: an uninvited Chinese surveillance ship. The U.S. Navy (USN) has since confirmed that the vessel is a Dongdiao-class Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) – one of the Chinese Navy’s three most advanced spy ships, designed to gather electronic and communication information from nearby ships and aircraft, as well as the land-based military facilities that blanket Hawaii.

For the first time since the RIMPAC exercise began in 1971, China is an official participant. After receiving an oft-repeated top-level invitation to join, Beijing sent 1,100 official personnel, supply ship Qiandaohu, missile frigate Yueyang, missile destroyer Haikou, and hospital ship Peace Ark to Hawaii. That gives China a larger presence than any participant save the host. The Dongidao AGI was not invited, and is not associated with RIMPAC – though the USN has been monitoring the ship’s movement since its arrival. But last Friday night the spy ship’s large radomes were positioned directly south of Oahu, near the USN’s Ronald Reagan Strike Group and the main body of ships joining the drill.

The unprecedented decision to send a surveillance vessel while also participating in the RIMPAC exercises calls China’s proclaimed stance on international navigation rights into question – and threatens to undermine the warming military relationship between the U.S. and China.

Why Here? Why Now?

In fairness, everyone enjoys a trip to Hawaii. From an intelligence collection perspective, however, the international exercise presents a golden opportunity. Surveillance vessels monitor electronic signals and communications in order to uncover technical secrets – for example, the frequencies of air defense radar – as well as valuable procedural information about other navies. Drills put a broad range of naval and technical operations on display, thus creating perfect targets for intelligence gathering.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviets were known for spying on each other’s exercises. More recently, Beijing sent what U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Captain Darryn James called “a similar AGI ship” to Hawaii to monitor RIMPAC 2012 – though that year, China was not an official participant in the exercises. The international nature of RIMPAC only adds to its appeal: twenty-two-countries-worth of operations and communication approaches are on display off Hawaii’s coast right now, creating a veritable treasure trove for intelligence collection, and a perfect place to practice collection techniques. Beyond the drills themselves, Hawaii hosts a number of military installations that China can monitor.

China’s Dongdiao-class AGI appears to be well suited for the task. The three hulls in the class are all specialized intelligence collectors, with radar antennae, surveillance equipment, and tracking capabilities. They boast enormous spherical radomes resembling mounted soccer balls full of sensors, including radar and optical tracking systems. The AGI monitoring RIMPAC right now is no camouflaged, converted fishing trawler like the Soviet spy ships of the Cold War era: it is a clearly-dedicated surveillance vessel. Its technical capabilities aside, the fact that it is not associated with RIMPAC frees it to concentrate on intelligence collection, while the other four People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships focus on cooperative exercises.

In 24 RIMPACs since 1971, Capt. James documented by email, “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.” There is nothing illegal about doing so. But civilian spectators and government officials are calling the move rude and aggressive—precisely the sort of technically legal but politically irritating action that, if pursued by the U.S., China would publicly condemn as undermining strategic trust. Etiquette aside, the spy ship’s presence appears inconsistent with China’s stance on military activities in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The PRC government actively and loudly opposes the presence of foreign surveillance ships, particularly those of the U.S., in its own claimed EEZ. In a string of incidents since 2001 – including the highly publicized March 2001, March 2009, and May 2009 confrontations with the USN ships Bowditch, Victorious, and Impeccable – Chinese vessels and aircraft have harassed American surveillance ship operating, legally, in China’s EEZ. That Beijing’s AGI is currently stationed off the coast of Hawaii suggests either a double standard that could complicate military relations between the United States and China, or that some such surveillance activities are indeed legitimate – and that China should clarify its position on them to avoid perceptions that it is trying to have things both ways.

American and International Responses