US Coast Guard patrol spots Chinese naval ships off Alaska island

Officials say a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the Bering Sea came across several Chinese military ships in international waters but within the U.S. exclusive economic zone

ByThe Associated Press
July 11, 2024, 12:38 AM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A U.S. Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the Bering Sea came across several Chinese military ships in international waters but within the U.S. exclusive economic zone, officials said.

The crew detected three vessels approximately 124 miles (200 kilometers) north of the Amchitka Pass in the Aleutian Islands, the Coast Guard said in a statement Wednesday. A short time later, a helicopter aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak spotted a fourth ship approximately 84 miles (135 kilometers) north of the Amukta Pass.

All four of the People’s Republic of China vessels were “transiting in international waters but still inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone,” which extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the U.S. shoreline, the statement said. The Chinese vessels told the Coast Guard their purpose for being there was “freedom of navigation operations.”

“The Chinese naval presence operated in accordance with international rules and norms,” said Rear Adm. Megan Dean, Seventeenth Coast Guard District commander. “We met presence with presence to ensure there were no disruptions to U.S. interests in the maritime environment around Alaska.”

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kimball is a 418-foot (127-meter) ship based in Honolulu. The Coast Guard said there is no requirement for foreign nations to proactively contact a country before entering their Exclusive Economic Zone and in this case said the Chinese vessels responded when the Coast Guard reached out on radio.

The Coast Guard did not respond to questions about how long the Chinese ships were in the Exclusive Economic Zone but said the Kimball and an air crew monitored them until they transited south of the Aleutian Islands and into the North Pacific Ocean.

The sighting of the ships came a week after the Chinese navy began its annual joint patrol with the Russian navy in the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Naval Institute reported July 5. It said the patrol is scaled down from previous years, including last August when more than 10 ships from China and Russia formed a flotilla off Alaska.

In September 2022, the Kimball spotted several ships from China and Russia in the Bering Sea. And in September 2021, Coast Guard cutters in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean encountered Chinese ships about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the Aleutian Islands. The Coast Guard said there was a similar incident in 2023 that the Navy responded to.

“Our military needs to be ready for increasing Chinese, and joint Chinese and Russian military activity near Alaska’s coast," U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, said in a statement after being briefed on the Chinese presence.

“I also met yesterday morning with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and specifically raised this issue—how America must be much more prepared for the increasing activity in the Arctic, and to also let Alaskans know that our military is on the job protecting our state and our country,” Sullivan said.

The U.S. military routinely conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations in disputed waters in Asia that China claims as its own, deploying Navy ships to sail through waterways such as the South China Sea. The U.S. says freedom of navigation in the waters is in America’s national interest.

Aaron Davenport, a retired senior Coast Guard officer who’s now with RAND, said when the Chinese vessels describe what they’re doing as “freedom of navigation operations,” it’s essentially China flexing its muscles by showing up in a part of the world that the U.S. considers part of its sphere of influence.

He said it’s similar to how the U.S. has deployed Coast Guard or other ships to the Taiwan Strait to uphold freedom of navigation and support American allies in the region — with the important distinction that the Aleutian Islands are clearly part of the U.S. The Taiwan Strait separates the island democracy of Taiwan from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory.