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China, US navies planning joint exercise

Vice Adm. Robert L. Thomas Jr., commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, second from left, speaks with senior members of the Chinese navy's North Sea Fleet during a discussion in Qingdao, China, on Aug. 6, 2014. The Japan-based USS Blue Ridge arrived in Qingdao on Tuesday for a port visit.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Chinese and U.S. Navy officials met Wednesday aboard the 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge to discuss a joint search-and-rescue exercise that could take place within the next couple of weeks, Navy officials told Stars and Stripes.

The Blue Ridge arrived Tuesday in Qingdao, headquarters of the Chinese navy’s North Fleet, for a goodwill port visit and will remain there this week.

RELATED: 7th Fleet returns to its old base in China

“If we can get the planning done for this, we’re hopeful we can actually do [the exercise] the first day after we leave here,” 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. William Marks said late Tuesday.

The exercise planning underscores the attempts at developing cooperation, despite sharp differences between China’s rapidly modernizing force and the Asia-based 7th Fleet.

The U.S. and most other nations oppose China’s long-asserted view of what constitutes “freedom of navigation” in the waters of the East and South China seas.

China maintains that ships do not have the right to surveillance within its exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. Such zones generally include international waters within 200 nautical miles of a nation’s shores.

The differing EEZ view first gained attention in 2009, when five ships, including a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy intelligence ship, surrounded and harassed the USNS Impeccable 75 miles from China’s shore. For a few years afterward, 7th Fleet officials told Stars and Stripes of further obstruction and shadowing of their ships by Chinese coast guard ships and non-official vessels.

In December, the USS Cowpens was forced to avoid a collision with a Chinese ship after it came within 30 miles of a Chinese exercise within China’s EEZ.

However, the relationship between the two navies appears to have stabilized for the time being, 7th Fleet officials said.

The U.S. hasn’t reported any recent incidents in which Chinese ships intentionally obstructed passage. In April, 21 nations, including China and the U.S., signed the Code For Unplanned Encounters at Sea, an agreement focused on preventing the sort of low-level incidents that have spurred U.S.-China maritime tensions.

“A few years ago, if a U.S. and a PLAN ship came together, there was no formal way to communicate,” Marks said. “CUES actually gives both ships a lot of [options].”

Meanwhile, China appears to be giving ground on its EEZ surveillance, implicitly recognizing the right by spying on the United States within American EEZs. U.S. Navy officials say such moves are encouraging.

Last year, a Chinese official told Pacific Command’s Adm. Samuel Locklear that they had been using surveillance ships in U.S. EEZs nearby Guam and Hawaii. Locklear told reporters that he supported China’s right to do so.

He said essentially the same thing last month after a Chinese intelligence ship showed up near Hawaii to observe the RIMPAC 2014 exercise in Hawaii, the largest multinational naval exercise of its kind.

“The good news about this is it’s a recognition, I think, or acceptance by the Chinese that what we’ve been saying to them for some time is that military operations and survey operations in another country’s [maritime zones] are within international law and are acceptable, and this is a fundamental right that nations have,” Locklear told Pentagon reporters.

What the developing relationship between the U.S. and Chinese navies doesn’t do is ease the tensions within the East and South China seas over territorial disputes.

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, putting itself at odds with U.S. allies and other neighbors, as well as generally accepted interpretations of international law. This summer, Chinese ships rammed Vietnamese vessels near the disputed Paracel islands when Vietnam challenged the Chinese deployment of an offshore oil rig.

There were no discussions Tuesday on the South China Sea disputes among the two navies’ officials, who included 7th Fleet Vice Adm. Robert Thomas and the North Sea Fleet’s Rear. Adm. Yuan Yubai, Marks said.

In their remaining time in Qingdao, 7th Fleet officials will evaluate other ways in which the U.S. and Chinese navies could engage in 2015.

“This week we will be able to, at least in annual planning, look to include them in some of the upcoming operations,” Marks said.

slavin.erik@stripes.com
Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

 

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