By Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe,
A group of Chinese naval vessels transited U.S. territorial waters near Alaska this week, a Pentagon official said Friday, in an unusual maneuver that underscores the potential for increased U.S.-Chinese friction at sea.
A U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the Chinese naval movements, said the group of five Chinese vessels had passed within about 12 nautical miles of the Aleutian Islands following a joint Russian-Chinese military exercise.
The ships did not violate international law, which allows countries to transit other nations’ seas under what is called “innocent passage,” the official said. He likened China’s movement through U.S. waters off Alaska to the activities of U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran.
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The official said the flotilla, which included three surface combatant ships, one amphibious ship and a supply ship, now appeared to be heading back to China. “By all accounts and by all indications, they’re going home,” he said.
Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said the ships continued out to sea into the Pacific Ocean after transiting the Aleutian Island chain. Defense officials said they did not move any Navy ships anywhere in response to China’s vessels. The Defense Department does not plan to provide additional updates on the location of the ships, indicating that Defense officials probably consider the issue resolved.
The Chinese ships, whose foray into U.S. waters was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, were spotted as President Obama concluded a high-profile visit to Alaska.
“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in growing commercial activity in the Arctic.
He said the incident — and especially the lack of a dramatic U.S. response — could also have a softening effect on China’s position on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
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