(Adds Chinese Defence Ministry comment)
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, July 20 China has sent a spy ship to
international waters off Hawaii during a giant U.S.-led naval
exercise involving 22 countries, even though Beijing is
participating in the drills for the first time this year, the
U.S. Navy said on Sunday.
The Navy played down any U.S. intelligence risk associated
with the proximity of the Chinese surveillance vessel and noted
that China also sent a similar ship to monitor the last Rim of
the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise two years ago.
"We've taken all necessary precautions to protect our
critical information," said Captain Darryn James, chief
spokesman of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
"We expect this ship will remain outside of U.S. territorial
seas and not operate in a manner that disrupts the ongoing Rim
of the Pacific maritime exercise."
China's Defence Ministry, in a statement faxed to Reuters,
said its naval vessels had the right under international law to
operate "in waters outside of other country's territorial
"China respects the rights granted under international law
to relevant littoral states, and hopes that relevant countries
can respect the legal rights Chinese ships have," it said,
U.S. officials hope China's participation in RIMPAC helps
avert misunderstandings on the high seas but analysts long
cautioned the maneuvers may ultimately help Beijing strengthen
its growing naval capability by observing the forces of the
United States and its allies.
Still, the United States also conducts surveillance
operations in international waters and airspace and the Navy did
not voice protest over the appearance of the Chinese vessel,
described as a Chinese Navy auxiliary general intelligence ship.
Even though the vessel was inside America's 200-nautical
mile exclusive economic zone, it was operating within
international law, James said.
Still, James said he was unaware of any participant doing
something similar since the drills began in 1971.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time a nation has ever
sent a surveillance ship near Hawaii while also having invited
ships participating in the RIMPAC exercise," James said.
The Chinese ships participating in the drills are missile
destroyer Haikou, missile frigate Yueyang, supply ship Qiandaohu
and hospital ship Peace Ark.
Chinese forces include two helicopters, a commando unit and
a diving unit, a total 1,100 personnel.
The exercises come at a time when tensions are high between
Beijing and U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines over
China's pressing of territorial claims in the South and East
They also come after a dispute between China and Vietnam
that led to one of the worst breakdowns in ties since they
fought a brief war in 1979.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by
Lisa Shumaker and Alan Raybould)