Chinese navy ships spotted off coast of Alaska

But Pentagon downplays foray by Beijing, with no threatening activities detected

WASHINGTON • Five Chinese navy ships were sailing in international waters of the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska on Wednesday, in what Pentagon officials said was the first such foray by Beijing.

The move came on the last day of US President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Alaska, in which he became the first sitting president to travel to Arctic Alaska.

The White House said the intent of the Chinese operation was unclear but the Pentagon had not detected any threatening activities. The ships were spotted moving towards the Aleutian Islands, which are split between Russian and United States control.

The foray may be more about economics than defence. The Arctic has become hotly contested as the US, Russia and China, among other nations, have expanded their economic and security interests. A growing number of vessels have been travelling north through the Bering Strait, and the US Coast Guard has diverted ships from other core missions to manage the traffic. A Pentagon official noted that China has every right to patrol international waters, adding that US warships often ply waters off the coast of China.

"I wouldn't call this something we are very worried about," the official said.

The operation... came as China has been increasingly flexing its military muscle, particularly off its own coast.

He said that US officials had identified a Chinese amphibious ship, three surface combatant ships and a replenishment vessel in the Bering Sea. Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defence Department respected "the freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters". The operation, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, came as China has been increasingly flexing its military muscle, particularly off its own coast.

Professor Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute, described it as a big advancement in the way Chinese ships operate, reported the BBC.

"It's not a surprise in a sense that the Chinese have been continually expanding their presence in Eurasia. They have conducted exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean and in the Sea of Japan... They have interest in the northern sea route, so to see them off the coast of Alaska is the next evolutionary step along these lines," said Prof Dutton.

Beijing has increased military spending and is working on an aircraft carrier. Last year, Chinese officials took then defence secretary Chuck Hagel on a tour of the carrier, the Liaoning.

Many US officials interpreted the move as an effort to project naval power, particularly in light of tensions between Beijing and its neighbours over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.

China is also developing stealth fighters, and it has continued to reclaim islands in the two seas at a brisk pace.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'Chinese navy ships spotted off coast of Alaska'. Print Edition | Subscribe