US Coast Guard cutters shadowed Chinese warships sailing near remote US territory in Alaska

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During a routine patrol in the Bering Sea and Arctic, US Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf spotted and established contact with Chinese warships, August 30, 2021
US Coast Guard photo by Ensign Bridget Boyle
  • Four Chinese warships were recently spotted conducting military operations near Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
  • The ships were tracked by US Coast Guard cutters and did not enter US territorial waters.
  • News of China's activity near Alaska follows Chinese complaints about US Navy activity in the South China Sea.
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Four Chinese navy vessels were recently spotted operating in waters near Alaska's Aleutian Islands, the US Coast Guard said in a statement on Monday.

The People's Liberation Army Navy task force, comprising a guided-missile cruiser, a guided-missile destroyer, a general intelligence vessel, and an auxiliary vessel, was conducting military and surveillance operations in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean.

The Chinese vessels entered the US exclusive economic zone but remained in international waters. The ships were in the EEZ from August 29 to September 1, a Coast Guard official told Insider Monday evening.

US Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf shadowing Chinese navy ships in international waters in the US exclusive economic zone, August 30, 2021.
US Coast Guard/Ensign Bridget Boyle

The closest the vessels came to US territory was when they sailed within about 46 miles of one of the Aleutian Islands. (Territorial waters extend 12 miles from the coast; the EEZ extends roughly 230 miles.)

The four Chinese warships were shadowed and monitored by the US Coast Guard cutters Bertholf and Kimball and are visible in Coast Guard images. The crew of the Bertholf made radio contact with the the Chinese ships, and the service said all interactions were consistent with international standards.

"Security in the Bering Sea and the Arctic is homeland security," Coast Guard Pacific Area commander Vice Adm. Michael McAllister said in a statement, adding that "the US Coast Guard is continuously present in this important region to uphold American interests and protect US economic prosperity."

In a report published on Monday, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times cited Chinese analysts as saying the activity could be seen as a "countermeasure against US military provocations on China's doorsteps in the name of freedom of navigation."

Sensitive waters

Last week, the USS Carl Vinson, the first aircraft carrier to deploy with F-35C stealth fighters, sailed into the South China Sea. The destroyer USS Benfold also conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation in the Spratly Islands, contested territories claimed by China.

China frequently protests foreign naval operations in those waters, and Chinese media characterised those activities as a "provocative deployment," and the Chinese military accused the US of trespassing and violating its sovereignty.

The US Navy's 7th Fleet said US forces would "continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows" and that "nothing" China "says otherwise will deter us."

News of Chinese naval activity near Alaska follows a call by Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the state-affiliated Global Times, for Chinese warships to sail near US territory in response to recent US Navy activity in the South China Sea, though the activity observed by the Coast Guard recently predates Hu's tweets.

US Navy Chief of Information Rear-Admiral Charles Brown responded to Hu's tweets, writing that the US Navy "has upheld the standards of freedom of navigation longer than the PLA navy has existed."

Brown then provided past examples of Chinese warships sailing near Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii.

Chinese warships first operated off Alaska's coast in 2015, when they entered US territorial waters while sailing through the Aleutian Islands. The US Navy at the time acknowledged that the Chinese ships conducted a legal transit.

The Aleutians stretch from mainland Alaska west across the North Pacific. The remote and rugged islands sit on the approaches to the Bering Strait, where naval activity is set to increase as the Arctic becomes more accessible.

The US military has increased its activity in Alaska - officials have even suggested reopening a base in the Aleutians - reflecting what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said is "how strategically important Alaska is to our national security and to homeland defense."

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