September 24, 2015 12:00 am JST

Warships off Alaska highlight Chinese navy's reach

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- While much of the world was focused on Beijing's Sept. 3 commemoration of its victory over Japan in World War II, five Chinese navy ships were gliding into U.S. territorial waters off Alaska.

     Although China was within its rights under international law, it was nevertheless a daring move, coming just as President Barack Obama was wrapping up a visit to the northernmost state. Security experts are wondering who ordered the maneuver -- and what message they wanted to send.

     Chinese naval vessels visited San Diego last year, but that was at the invitation of the U.S. military. The Alaska incident was the first time any Chinese warship had entered American waters without prior consultations, according to the U.S. government.

     National security experts in Japan and the U.S. note that the Chinese military began sailing in and out of the U.S. exclusive economic zone about two years ago, which extends up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from the coast. This time, the vessels entered its territorial waters in the Bering Sea, which extend just 12 nautical miles from U.S. shores.

     Coinciding with Obama's visit, which ended Sept. 3, the incursion caught the attention of the U.S. media. Outwardly at least, the White House was nonchalant.

Tantalizing questions

There are many theories about why China crossed that maritime line. Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, thinks the move was an add-on to the massive Sept. 3 military parade in Beijing.

     "During the parade, China showed off missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland," said Ohara, who was stationed in China as a Japanese naval attache prior to joining the think tank. "However, the weapons displayed in the parade did not include naval equipment. China might well have wanted to demonstrate that its navy is also capable of getting close to the U.S. mainland."

     Another question is whether the move was sanctioned by President Xi Jinping, or decided by the military without his input. Ohara reckons Xi signed off on it, based on three factors.

     First, there were five ships involved, not just one. That all of them crossed into U.S. waters suggests their moves were orchestrated according to a predetermined plan.

     Second, it is inconceivable that such a plan was executed without the top brass's approval. And third, given that Xi is scheduled to visit the U.S. in September, it is hard to believe the military would not inform him beforehand.

Beneath the surface

The U.S. government's response was calm, with a White House representative emphasizing the ships made no threatening moves. The official line is that the ships were simply exercising their right of innocent passage.

     Last year, when Chinese military aircraft came dangerously close to a U.S. military plane over the South China Sea, the Department of Defense lodged a stern protest. This was "aimed at letting President Xi know that some front-line Chinese military personnel were acting irresponsibly, and urging him to ensure discipline," a U.S. national security specialist said.

     In contrast, since the naval maneuver did not violate international law, the Defense Department likely decided to let it go. The Obama administration, too, was probably reluctant to make a fuss. Doing so might have given the Republican Party ammunition to spoil Xi's visit, such as by demanding the White House not host Xi to an official state dinner. 

     If, as most experts believe, the navy acted with Xi's blessing, this has major implications for both the U.S. and Japan. It suggests that, having enhanced its blue-water capabilities, the Chinese military is now free to operate in U.S. waters.

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