Five Chinese warships have been spotted operating off the coast of Alaska, Pentagon officials told the Wall Street Journal. The task group includes three “combat ships,” a supply vessel, and an amphibious landing ship. The warships are being tracked in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands, a territory that is under joint U.S. and Russian control. According to the Department of Defense, this is the first time Chinese warships have been seen in this area. The composition of the task group makes its purpose fairly unambiguous. This is a group of warships designed to conduct an opposed landing.
This might sound like a big call, so here is an explanation. According to NPR, the task group is made up of three “combat ships,” a supply ship, and an amphibious landing ship. The “combat ships” are likely guided missile frigates or destroyers, deployed to protect the High Value Units (HVU), being the supply vessel and amphibious ship. Anyone familiar with naval operations will know that this is a classic configuration for an expeditionary task group, purposed with landing troops, supplies, armor, or all of the above on a hostile beach.
The frigates or destroyers maintain a dynamic screen around the other warships, acting as missile defense and attack dogs for the more vulnerable units in the group. The amphibious ship carries the troops, armor and supplies, while the supply ship is usually an underway fueling vessel designed to significantly increase operational range.
Given this, the Pentagon’s assessment that the Chinese warships are not acting in “any aggressive way” might seem a bit incongruous. It’s not. The vessels are in international waters and all ships, including Chinese warships, have a legal right of innocent passage. So long as they do not live fire any weapons or menace other shipping in the area, they are perfectly within their rights to be where they are. They may conduct limited military exercises, practice close manoeuvres, steam around in circles, or, in short, do whatever else they like. And one of the things that they can do, without anyone knowing or being able to prevent them, is soak up signals traffic from the area for the purposes of intelligence gathering. Chinese intelligence gathering is famously overt, a good example being the spy ship that observed and presumably recorded the last RIMPAC drills, the first to which the Chinese had been invited.
It has been suggested that the warships may have some link to the huge World War II anniversary parade celebrating China’s victory over Japan 70 years ago. More plausibly, other commentators suggest that the presence of Chinese warships near Alaska might be a direct response to increased U.S. Naval presence in the South China Sea. Whatever the reason, this incident fits neatly into the overall pattern of Chinese military and naval expansion that has been cause for significant concern over the last decade.
Chinese policy is no respecter of diplomatic or military conventions. The Chinese PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) is currently trying to re-write maritime law in the South China Sea by publicly flouting it and has previously sent warships into the zones of interest of countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. On top of this, its enormous fishing fleet militia is expanding Chinese maritime activity further and further abroad. This latest manifestation of Chinese assertiveness confirms, beyond doubt, that China is serious about its goal to establish a truly global blue water navy. All that’s in doubt now is how the rest of the world will react to this new factor in the global balance of power.
[Picture via Getty Images]