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The US-China Maritime Surveillance Debate

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The Australian Defense Department confirmed that last week a Chinese Auxiliary General Intelligence (AGI) vessel monitored the U.S.-Australia Talisman Sabre joint military exercises from within Australia’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This “first-ever” Chinese incursion of its type in Australia’s EEZ has sparked an international reaction. Many officials and analysts are accusing China of hypocrisy because it is undertaking intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in other countries’ EEZs while opposing those of the United States in its own EEZ. But there are significant differences in scale, technological capability, methods, and objectives between what China and the United States are doing.

In 2012, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) undertook the first maritime intelligence collection mission in the U.S. EEZ around Guam and then Hawaii. Then in 2014 an uninvited PLAN AGI vessel operated in Hawaii’s EEZ to observe the multinational RIMPAC 2014 naval exercise. This event was well publicized by the U.S. Defense Department. According to then-Commander of the U.S. 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 … your own national security interest, are within international law and are acceptable.”

But such comparisons are misleading 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.”

However, the scale of U.S. ISR missions against China is an order of magnitude greater than that of China against the United States. For example, as of 2017, the PLAN had only three AGI vessels. Of course China also has ISR planes, drones, and satellites but their number and capabilities also pale in comparison to those of U.S. assets.

Indeed, the........

© The Diplomat