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
In its response to the Chinese vessel’s presence, the USN has shown characteristic restraint. Official American policy permits surveillance operations within a nation’s EEZ, provided they remain outside of that nation’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea (an EEZ extends from 12 to 200 nautical miles unless this would overlap with another nations’ EEZ). U.S. military statements reflect that position unambiguously. Capt. James stated that the U.S. is monitoring China’s AGI, in part to ensure that it does not present a safety or operational hazard.
That consistent policy stance and accompanying restraint have characterized the U.S. attitude toward foreign surveillance activity since the Cold War. Then, the Soviets were known for sending converted fishing ships equipped with surveillance equipment to the U.S. coast, as well as foreign bases, maritime choke points, and testing sites. The U.S. was similarly restrained in 2012, when China first sent an AGI to observe RIMPAC. The Department of Defense’s 2013 report on China’s military simply stated: “ the PLA Navy has begun to conduct military activities within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other nations, without the permission of those coastal states. Of note, the United States has observed over the past year several instances of Chinese naval activities in the EEZ around Guam and Hawaii. One of those instances was during the execution of the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in July/August 2012. While the United States considers the PLA Navy activities in its EEZ to be lawful, the activity undercuts China’s decades-old position that similar foreign military activities in China’s EEZ are unlawful .”
However, observers outside of the U.S. naval establishment argue that, if only from an etiquette standpoint, the situation is very different now that China is an official participant in RIMPAC. One civilian expert who witnessed the event described China’s move to us as a “rude decision,” and compared it to “inviting a friend over for dinner and then having their buddy break in your backdoor to rob you.”
At least one government official agrees. Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, said in a statement that China “ chose to disrespect the 20 other international participants [of RIMPAC] by sailing an intelligence gathering ship directly into the middle of the exercise.”
Brad Glosserman, Executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, expressed concerns of his own: “Is it a poor PR move?” Yes,” he said. “Am I surprised? No.” Glosserman added that “ Chinese behavior is proving increasingly inexplicable in recent weeks.”
And international sentiment appears to be in line with that of American experts. Ben Schreer, a senior analyst for defense strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, holds that China’s move “ sends a bad signal. There was a lot of good will on the American side that said, ‘despite what you have been doing in the East and South China Sea recently, we invite you to this prestigious exercise and what you do is blatantly put this spy ship in the area .'”
Per Rostad, commanding officer of the Royal Norwegian navy’s Fridtjof Nansen, puzzled that the dispatch of a surveillance ship “ is a bit novel when you [already] participate in an exercise with participating units.”
No Bureaucratic Accident
Politically speaking, the decision to send a fifth, uninvited ship is indeed a curious one. China’s participation in RIMPAC this year represents a significant warming in Sino-American military relations, and one that was far from assured. In his statement on Friday, Forbes said “it was already a stretch to reward Beijing with an invite to such a prestigious event like RIMPAC,” citing pointed disagreements over freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.