China’s RIMPAC Maritime-Surveillance Gambit

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."

Monitoring the Next EEZ Activities

China’s conducting military activities in a foreign EEZ implies that, under its interpretation, some such operations are indeed legal. It therefore falls to China now to clarify its stance – to explain why its operations are consistent with international law, and what sets them apart from apparently similar American activities.

If China does not explain away the apparent contradiction in a convincing fashion, it risks stirring up increased international resentment – and undermining its relationship with the U.S. Beijing is currently engaging in activities very much like those it has vociferously opposed. That suggests the promotion of a double standard untenable in the international system, and very much at odds with the relationships based on reciprocity, respect, and cooperation that China purports to promote.

 Moreover, there already exists international concern over China’s rise and its potential for destabilization – a concern generally linked to the perception of Beijing as abandoning previous restraint and reassurances as its power permits. Those worries have grown amid China’s often bullying rhetoric and actions toward its neighbors, particularly vis-à-vis island and maritime claims disputes. One international affairs observer encapsulated this sort of concern provocatively to us: “International law [is] based on reciprocity, [the] tribute system not so.”

The AGI’s presence risks adding fuel to this fire – and, if Beijing does not legitimate its actions, risks undermining the progress in the Sino-American relationship that allowed China to join in the RIMPAC exercises. Congressman Forbes argues that the AGI’s presence is reason not to invite China back to RIMPAC 2016. “It is clear that China is not ready to be a responsible partner and that their first trip to RIMPAC should probably be their last,” he said. With Republicans within striking distance of taking both houses of Congress this fall, both the Obama Administration and China will have to take such concerns seriously.

If, however, China chooses to remain silent, it will likely have to accept – at least tacitly, without harassing – U.S. surveillance missions in its claimed EEZ. So, as we watch for clarification on Beijing’s legal interpretation, it will also be important to watch for indications regarding the next SROs in China’s EEZ. As to who can watch that space: when precisely that occurs, and what exactly materializes, may not be readily known to open source researchers – particularly if Sino-American interaction therein proceeds without major incident. Interested parties should take advantage of the fact that the U.S. believes in allowing public affairs officers like Capt. James to provide substantive and timely information so that the rest of us are not left in the dark.


Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the United States Naval War College and an associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He blogs at You can follow him on Twitter: @andrewserickson. Emily de La Bruyere is a junior at Princeton and an intern at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are theirs alone, and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet/CC by-nc 2.0