The Australian Department of Defence confirmed that last week a Chinese Dongdiao-class Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) vessel monitored the US-Australia Talisman Sabre joint military exercises from within Australia’s 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This “first-ever” Chinese incursion of its type in Australia’s EEZ has sparked both alarm and an international debate. Many say China is hypocritical because it is undertaking intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in other countries’ 200 nm EEZs while opposing those of the US in its own EEZ. But there are significant differences in scale, technological capability, methods, and objectives between what China and the US are doing.
China’s first “public” attempt at maritime spying in the US EEZ was when an uninvited People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) AGI vessel operated in Hawaii’s EEZ to observe RIMPAC 2014, a multinational naval exercise. Also in 2014, a Chinese AGI vessel was observed off Guam during a US military exercise. According to then-Commander of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) Admiral Samuel Locklear: “The good news about this is that it’s a recognition, I think, or an acceptance by the Chinese of what we’ve been saying to them for some time, [which] is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s EEZs, where you have national—your own national security interest, are within international law and are acceptable.” But such simplistic comparisons are deceptive and potentially dangerous. They can lead to the false hope that China will eventually “see the light” and quietly assent to activities it considers threatening because “it is undertaking similar activities.”
But the scale is very different. Ironically, the “different scale” argument was first used against China by China critics to demonize its occupations and “militarization” of features in the South China Sea. Although these critics grudgingly acknowledged that China was not doing anything other claimants had not done, nevertheless China’s behavior was singled out as unacceptable because of the much greater scale and “aggressiveness” of its activities.
It seems that the tables are now turned. Although the critics argue that China is doing “the same thing” as the US, the scale of US ISR missions against China is probably an order of magnitude greater than that of China against the US. For example, as of 2017, PLAN had only three AGI vessels. Of course, China also has ISR planes, drones, and satellites but their number and capabilities pale in comparison to those of US assets.
Indeed, the US has a huge array of ISR planes, surface vessels, submarines, and drones — many of which, like the subhunter Impeccable, have specialized functions. The US has by far the world’s largest and most capable force of signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft. Moreover, most of the US Navy’s top-of-the-line combatants like the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers as well as its submarines are equipped to carry out SIGINT missions. Further, no other country matches the US’ number and array of robotic aircraft and seacraft (drones), particularly in terms of their range and advanced weapons and sensors, coupled with the necessary satellite and telecommunications support systems. US satellite IRS capacity greatly exceeds that of China. In terms of deployment, the US flies hundreds of manned ISR missions every year along China’s coast. There have been no public reports of similar Chinese aerial ISR missions off the US mainland coast.
Technological capabilities, techniques and objectives are other major differences. Yes, China does insert ISR platforms into other countries’ EEZs — like that of Japan. But it is likely that Chinese technological capabilities and activities in terms of intrusive methods used and information obtained are so substantially inferior to and different from those of the US as to be in a separate, much lower category, e.g., passive listening versus active probing or electronic interference with, and even manipulation of, communications.
But this is unconfirmed because the US is not being “transparent” when it comes to ISR capabilities. Again ironically, Locklear said of China’s military modernization: “What we should be concerned about though is what we perceive as a lack of transparency on their part in why they are building the type of systems they are building. Quite frankly, it makes their neighbours nervous and it gives us some cause for concern here at PACOM about the type of military they are building and the type of equipment they are buying.”
A confidential US Navy-National Security Agency (NSA) report revealed by Edward Snowden shows that China’s concerns regarding America’s ISR missions off its coasts are justified.
But in the case of ISR, it is the extent of capabilities that is not publicly known. To convince sceptics that there is anything near parity between Chinese and US ISR capabilities, those making the “China does the same thing” argument — especially those in the US Navy, need to reveal exactly what it is that the US is doing in China’s near seas so that all can evaluate it for themselves. Otherwise their arguments will fall on deaf ears, and independent and neutral analysts can only speculate based on what little is known.
In general, it is known that US ISR assets collect communications between the target country’s command-and-control centres and radar and weapons systems, including surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and fighter aircraft. Other US ISR probes collect “actionable” intelligence for expeditionary and irregular warfare.
Incidents involving ISR aircraft like the EP-3 and the Poseidon 8A, as well as the US Navy ships Bowditch, Impeccable, and Cowpens, may have collectively included active “tickling” of China’s coastal defences to provoke and observe responses, interference with shore-to-ship and submarine communications, violation or abuse of the consent regime for marine scientific research, damage to the environment, and tracking China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting.
If so, these are not passive intelligence collection activities commonly undertaken and usually tolerated by many states, including China. Rather they are intrusive, provocative, and controversial practices that may be considered a threat to use force or violations of both China’s marine scientific consent and its environmental protection regimes. This could occur when and if the Poseiden 8 drops sonobuoys (which are part of its repertoire) or the Impeccable and Bowditch deploy “scientific instruments” in China’s EEZ. Indeed, China’s EEZ environment may be degraded if US sonar systems or live fire exercises adversely affect fish and mammals like whales and dolphins.
But much of this is unconfirmed. What do we — the public — know?
A confidential US Navy-National Security Agency (NSA) report revealed by Edward Snowden shows that China’s concerns regarding America’s ISR missions off its coasts are justified. The 2001 report reveals that in the EP-3 incident, the crew was unable to destroy all the secret data and systems on board, and details the scope of secrets exposed to China.
The exposed information contained the fact that the US has “the ability to locate and collect transmissions to or from Chinese submarines and to correlate them to specific vessels.” The plane also carried data that clarified “how much the US knew about China’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles program.” Also, according to the report, as speculated, the missions spur targeted militaries to react, thus creating communications that can be intercepted.
So, it does appear that the US has a huge advantage over China when it comes to ISR. But unlike Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, China does not oppose all foreign military activities in its EEZ without its permission. Nevertheless, China certainly does object by word and deed to what it perceives as US abuse of the right of freedom of navigation and a threat to use force.
In sum, China apparently believes that these activities violate the peaceful purpose and uses provisions of UNCLOS, as well as its UNCLOS EEZ resource rights and environmental obligations. China also thinks that the US is “preparing the battle field” and that this constitutes a violation of the UN Charter as well as UNCLOS. In particular, China alleges that the US is not abiding by its obligation to pay “due regard” to its rights and duties as a coastal state. Such due regard in the EEZ is required by UNCLOS for both the coastal state and the user state, but is undefined.
Whether these concerns are valid or not, China is probably not violating these UNCLOS provisions with its AGI vessel activities and the US may well be doing so — on a grand scale. The US may want to reconsider and modify its superficial and misleading argument that both are doing the same thing.