The U.S. Coast Guard recently released a set of pictures of the Legend class cutter USCGC Bertholf shadowing a group of four Chinese warships sailing in America's Exclusive Economic Zone near Alaska's Aleutian Islands back in August. The emergence of these pictures follows the editor-in-chief of Global Times, a newspaper under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party, taking to Twitter to criticize U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific that routinely challenge many of Beijing's widely disputed maritime territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and warn of tit-for-tat activities on the part of the People's Liberation Army Navy.
The pictures were shot between Aug. 29 and Aug. 30, 2021, but were only released through the U.S. military's Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) website more recently. The captions to the photographs, which have now, curiously, been removed from DVIDS, say they were taken "in international waters inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] off the Aleutian Island [sic] coast." It's not clear if any Chinese vessels are still inside the U.S. EEZ off the coast of Alaska, which stretches well out into the Pacific Ocean, but The War Zone has already reached out to the U.S. Coast Guard for more information.
The exact identities of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships that were inside the EEZ in August are unclear. However, the caption to one of the pictures, seen at the top of this story, says that "the PLAN task force included a guided missile cruiser, a guided missile destroyer, a general intelligence vessel, and an auxiliary vessel."
Independent observers have already noted that Japanese authorities had reported four PLAN warships transiting east to west through the Soya Strait, which would have pointed them in the general direction of the EEZ off Alaska, on Aug. 24. Those vessels included a Type 055 destroyer, which the U.S. military has categorized as a cruiser in the past, as well as a Type 052D destroyer, a Type 903 replenishment ship, and an intelligence-gathering ship with the hull number 799.
This would align perfectly with the Coast Guard's description of the four Chinese ships sailing near the Aleutians. It also represents a very capable, multi-purpose task force. The Type 055, in particular, is the PLAN's most modern surface warship and has more than 100 vertical launch system cells that can be loaded, as required, with a variety of surface-to-air, anti-ship, and land-attack missiles.
What level of interaction the Coast Guard has had, or may still be having, with these Chinese ships is unclear. The caption for another one of the pictures, seen below, does say it shows the Bertholf's commanding officer, Captain Tim Brown, as he "communicates with a Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy ship operating as part of a four-ship PLAN task force" and that "interactions between Coast Guard Cutters Bertholf and Kimball, [another Legend class cutter] which is also operating in the area, and the PLAN vessels were safe and professional, and verbal communications were in accordance with international standards."
The appearance of these pictures online does notably follow a Tweet from Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin on Sept. 8. Hu was reacting directly to other posts on that social media site from official U.S. Navy accounts that highlighted the arrival of the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea "in order to uphold the free and open use of Indo-Pacific waters." The Chinese government has expansive territorial claims over this body of water, which are widely rejected by other countries in the region and the international community at large.
"Hopefully when Chinese warships pass through the Caribbean Sea or show up near Hawaii and Guam one day, the US will uphold the same standard of freedom of navigation," Hu wrote on Twitter. "That day will come soon."
Also on Sept. 8, the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Benfold had conducted what is known as a freedom of navigation patrol, or FONOP, within 12 miles of Mischief Reef, which Chinese authorities say is their territorial waters, in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea. The service also denied reports that Chinese forces had chased Benfold out of the area. This all followed the Chinese government's announcement on Sept. 1 that it had instituted new rules requiring many categories of foreign vessels, not just warships, to identify themselves and provided additional information after entering the country's territorial waters.
The Chinese government has established a number of man-made outposts in the South China Sea, including in Mischief Reef, which it uses, together with the increasingly regular deployment of various maritime forces, to assert its claims in the region. The U.S. Navy, as well as the Coast Guard in more recent years, regularly conducts FONOPs in the South China Sea, and elsewhere in the Pacific, to challenge those disputed territorial claims. Global Times' Hu's comments were as much about FONOPs, in general, as the news about the USS Carl Vinson and her strike group, specifically.
The U.S. Navy's Office of the Chief of Information, or CHINFO, had already responded, via its own official Twitter account, to Hu's Tweet. "The @USNavy has upheld the standards of freedom of navigation longer than the PLA navy has existed," CHINFO's initial response read.
This was followed by a succession of Tweets detailing various instances in recent years where Chinese warships have sailed in international waters in the general vicinity of the United States without any interference from the U.S. military.
The Coast Guard's photos of PLAN vessels in the U.S. EEZ off Alaska present yet another example of these kinds of interactions. This isn't the first time Chinese warships have appeared in international waters off the coast of that state, either. In 2015, the PLAN sent five ships into the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutians, during a visit there by then-President Barack Obama.
In addition, it's worth noting that Russian warships have sailed relatively close to U.S. territorial waters, including off Hawaii and Alaska, over the years without issue. This includes an instance just earlier this year when a task force from Russia's Pacific Fleet sailed within at least 34 miles of the Hawaiian Islands. Unlike the Chinese government and its claims in the South China Sea, the U.S. government does not assert that vast sections of the Pacific near Hawaii or Guam, or any large portion of the Caribbean, are in fact its territorial waters.
Of course, in all of these instances, the U.S. military has also closely monitored this foreign naval activity. A new over-arching naval strategy document that the U.S. Navy, together with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard, put out last year did put heavy emphasis on monitoring and documenting aggressive maritime activity on the part of China, as well as Russia, going forward.
Regardless, the appearance of the Chinese ships near the Aleutian Islands does simply underscore the increasing blue water capabilities of the PLAN in the Pacific, as well as elsewhere around the world. If this Chinese naval task force spotted sailing near the Aleutians ultimately continued further north, it could be headed to, or at least near the ever-more-strategic Arctic region. This is an area that is also reportedly seeing increased Chinese maritime activity, as well as a growing presence on the part of the Russian military.
The United States is hardly the only one facing the prospect of increasingly routine PLAN naval activities closer to its shores, either. Just yesterday, the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced that Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ships and aircraft had been tracking what is believed to be a Chinese submarine sailing in a "contiguous zone" off Amami Oshima island. Amami is situated between the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Okinawa. A contiguous zone is defined as the 12 miles beyond a country's territorial waters, where, under international law, "a coastal State may exercise the control necessary to prevent the infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea, and punish infringement of those laws and regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea."
So, no matter what, Global Times' Hu's comments about increasing Chinese naval operations in waters around the United States, as well as other countries, particularly in the Pacific, is a reality now. Whether the U.S. military responds any differently going forward, especially if the PLAN continues to step up this kind of activity, remains to be seen, but at this point, the U.S. Navy appears to welcome the activity as it validates its own freedom of navigation operations.
The U.S. Coast Guard has reuploaded the pictures in question to Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) website with some additional details. The captions now note that the USCGC Bertholf had been conducting a "routine maritime patrol in the Bering Sea and Arctic region" when it encountered the Chinese warships. The Coast Guard has also now stressed that, while these vessels did enter the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Alaska, "at no point did the PLAN task force enter U.S. territorial waters."