When the spied-upon become the spies

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Chinese sailors stand at attention onboard a Chinese naval ship during a visit to Davao city, southern Philippines April 30, 2017.  Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr

For years China has complained about America’s close-in surveillance of its coastline, which has led to confrontations such as the one last week when two Chinese air force fighters intercepted a US Navy surveillance plane over the East China Sea.

“Close–in reconnaissance threatens China’s national security, harms Sino-US relations and endangers the safety of both sides’ pilots,” said the Chinese defense ministry in response to Washington’s protest that China had engaged in dangerous flying maneuvers.

Ironically, at the same time Beijing was complaining about American spying, its rapidly growing fleet of intelligence-gathering spy ships were eavesdropping on US missile tests near Alaska and allied maneuvers off the coast of northeast Australia, and in the Indian Ocean.

In short, the spied upon are becoming the spies.

Some background. What Beijing views as illegal intrusions in and over its coastal waters, the US views as lawful rights of passage both for military aircraft and civilian traffic. At issue is a fundamental disagreement on interpreting the relative articles of the Law of the Sea.

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of South China Sea, in this undated photo taken December, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Stringer/File photo

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of the South China Sea, in this undated photo. Photo: Reuters/Stringer/File photo

Every country with a coastline is allowed a 12-nautical mile zone that is sovereign territory for the affected country. The US says it respects this and insists that it surveillance operations take place in international waters outside this zone.

(The US Navy’s freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, where US naval vessels deliberately sail within 12 miles of islands considered by Beijing to be sovereign territory, is another matter.)

Further, every country with a coastline has a 200-nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) in which it has an exclusive right to exploit the natural resources in the water such as fish or natural gas under the seabed.

Not surprisingly, Beijing rejects Washington’s interpretation and complains that US planes or ships spying on China’s military assets are not exactly what the drafters had in mind concerning the right of “innocent passage.”

China’s interpretation is not unique or unusually self-serving. Many countries, including some in Asia, observe the stricter interpretation. They include Malaysia, Thailand and India.

New Delhi maintains a ban on military vessels inside its 200-mile zone and has loudly protested US naval operations challenging it.

Last week, a Chinese spy ship was observed lingering near a major Australian-U.S. military exercise taking place in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland.

A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island in this U.S. Department of Defense handout photo taken August 19, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout

A Chinese J-11 fighter flies near a US Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km off Hainan Island in this US Department of Defense picture on Aug. 19, 2014. Photo: via Reuters.

It was the largest joint exercise since World War II and thus a tempting target for tactical intelligence.

The Australian Ministry of Defense said that while the Chinese ship stayed outside the 12-mile territorial limit it did operate inside Australia’s 200-mile EEZ.

So after years of complaining about US behavior, Beijing seems to be using Washington’s interpretation of right of passage through 200-mile zones for itself, too.

China has built an impressive fleet of modern intelligence-gathering ships known as the Dongdiao-class AIG, or auxiliary intelligence gathering. It has commissioned six of them with one more under construction.

They are considered among the most advanced spy ships in the world. The Dongdiao made its international debut in 2015 at the annual RimPac fleet exercises off Hawaii. Washington makes a point of inviting foreign vessels to participate and China did send a warship.

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China’s Dongdiao-class spy ships. Photo: Japanese Ministry of Defense.

It also dispatched a Dongdiao to shadow the exercise, making it probably the first time a country has spied on an exercise of which it was a participant.

The Chinese spy ships are easily recognized by their three globe-like radar domes. The ship displaces about 6,000 tons on what looks like a destroyer or corvette hull. It is lightly armed and has room for a helicopter. The gray paint indicates it is a regular navy vessel.

Beijing has made no effort to disguise what these ships are up to or pretend that they have any other mission besides intelligence gathering.

July saw four of the spy ships deployed at the far ends of the earth.

In addition to the Australian exercise, a Dongdiao vessel monitored the Malabar naval exercise in the Indian Ocean (in which Japan took part). Another was reported sailing near Guam.

A Dongdiao spy ship sailed through the Tsuruga Strait separating Japan’s Hokkaido from Honshu and then on to Alaskan waters to monitor America’s recent successful THAAD anti-ballistic missile test.

Washington raised no protest or alarm at the presence of a Chinese spy ship close to such a sensitive exercise.

Though it could hardly have protested, considering that the Chinese spy ship was, by Washington’s own interpretation of the Law of the Sea, not doing anything illegal.

“By operating in Australia’s 200-mile zone [Beijing] has set a clear precedent justifying freedom of navigation or over flights within China’s 200-mile zone” wrote Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute in Australia.

There might develop a mutual tolerance for close-in surveillance, Graham added optimistically.

But just don’t expect China to stop complaining about foreign powers engaged in military surveillance along its coast.

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