According to reports, five Chinese warships have moved into the Bering Sea near Alaska after participating in a naval exercise with Russia. Yet the consensus of analysts is that the ships are not viewed as a threat by the United States government, even as President Barack Obama is currently travelling in northern Alaska near the Arctic Circle.

China Warships Approach U.S. Coast Sparking War Fears

Defense Department acknowledges Chinese vessels

White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed that the Defense Department had identified a number of Chinese vessels in that region, but that military analysis had revealed that there was no form of threat, or indeed threatening activities, emanating from the naval presence.

Nonetheless, the US military continues to monitor the region, increasingly wary of ships emanating from China in the area. It has been reported that the US authorities have been tracking the movement of vessels in the region for days, as they continue to traverse international waters. Although comments emanating from Washington have been diplomatic, the defense department has also taken what is fundamentally a neutral position.

Earnest stated that the intention of the ships at this time is still unclear, and clearly there is at least some form of suspicion among the US administration. However, despite this suspicion, as long as vessels behave in accordance with international law, it seems certain that that United States will retain its diplomatic distance.

Navy Cdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, indicated that vessels from China have not been spotted in the Bering Sea before, but was also keen to emphasize that the United States viewed the conduct of China as acceptable at the time of writing. Urban stated that the United States respected “the freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters in accordance with international law”.

China ships approach US coast

What particularly caused concern about the behavior of the Chinese vessels was, firstly, the fact that they came within 12 nautical miles of the United States coast. This could have represented a temporary passage into US territorial waters, according to the Pentagon. Secondly, the proximity of Obama to the incident has obviously been of concern to the White House hierarchy, even if there was really no credible threat to the President.

Pentagon officials indeed confirmed that five Chinese navy ships had passed through United States territorial waters as they transited the Aleutian Islands. And this has unquestionably generated headlines in many quarters. But it is important to emphasize that the ships had also completely complied with international law.

Nonetheless, analysts are assessing this incident as a significant chapter in the ongoing diplomatic, economic and covert military battle between the United States and China. The Chinese authorities have long objected to the United States transiting vessels in its territorial waters, or indeed operating in international waters just outside the limits of China. In this context, this latest incident could be seen as very much a retaliatory effort from the Chinese.

Certainly there has been no effort to deny the incident on the behalf of the Chinese authorities. The Chinese defense ministry has confirmed that navy ships had sailed to the Bering Sea for training after joint exercises with Russia, but that the activity was completely routine and certainly not aimed at any particular nation.

Nonetheless, in the wake of a recent report that suggests that Russia and China are collaborating significantly in order to increase China’s naval power, the incident does underline the shifting world order. China clearly has expanding naval power and ambitions, as illustrated by its activities in the South China Sea region, and the passage of these vessels on the eve of a lavish military parade in Beijing succinctly illustrates the capabilities of the world’s most populous nation.

China-US relations improving

While the diplomatic relationship between the United States and China has improved recently, this could be seen by many analysts as a powerplay ahead of an important state visit. It is just weeks until China’s President, Xi Jinping, begins a state visit to the US, and news of this latest incident will hardly improve relations between the two superpowers. There are already tensions in the United States over alleged Chinese cyber attacks on the US, and of course the Washington government has also taken a keen interest on China’s land grabbing in the South China Sea region.

As China becomes increasingly emboldened by its strong alliances and improving military capabilities, it is believed by US officials that the East Asian superpower is currently working on building a so-called blue-water navy. This would ensure that China has the capability of operating a considerable distance from its shores, while simultaneously developing missiles and other naval capabilities designed to prevent that United States navy from intervening in any conflict in the Asian region. This would then cement the imperialistic plans of China in the South China Sea, ensuring that the United States is effectively neutered on the subject.

As Beijing displays its military wares in a parade to mark the surrender of Japanese forces at the end of the Second World War, many new capabilities were on display. Central to these was a new naval-based ballistic missile, which clearly represents a paradigm shift in the naval and military abilities of the East Asian nation.

Yet despite the concern among both US military analysts and the Washington government, many experts in fact view the Chinese transit through the Aleutians as a positive step. Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, suggested that the operation can be viewed as one of fairness and equity, with the passage of these vessels in fact a large step forward for the United States. The Beijing government now has no rational basis to object to similar passage through Chinese territorial seas by the United States Navy.

So although this is an incident that has generated headlines, and understandably so, in the long run it could help to improve the diplomatic relationship between the two nations. The 21st century will unquestionably be defined by the rivalry between China and the United States, and with the two nations already sharing so much common ground, it would be encouraging to see the two superpowers reach a mutual and peaceful understanding.