A few days ago, the U.S. Navy reported that it had detected five Chinese naval ships near the Aleutian Islands. The vessels – supposedly three Chinese combat ships, a replenishment vessel and an amphibious landing ship – were spotted transiting U.S. territorial waters near Attu, which is the easternmost island belonging to the U.S. in the volcanic chain. At the time, President Obama was visiting Alaska. But despite the potential for harsh words, the U.S. government reacted calmly. “They were operating in international waters as U.S. ships operate in international waters. And so we didn’t take it as a particular threat,” remarked Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook at a press briefing. Nothing to see here, folks.

Cook did downplay the Chinese naval ships’ route: if other Pentagon reports are to be believed, the ships actually transited U.S. territorial waters coming within 12 nautical miles of Attu, and not just international waters. However, they exercised the right of innocent passage, which is protected by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.S. navy, too, continually exercises this right around the world. Still, Conservative voices denounced the government’s nonchalant reaction. Joel Pollak, editor-in-chief of conservative news site Breitbart, penned a story entitled “Obama makes excuses for Chinese warships in U.S. waters.” But the U.S. government was probably right to downplay the Chinese passage. While it was a first for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to come so close to Alaskan/U.S. waters, the U.S. Navy has been doing the same thing in waters China considers its own for some time. Consider what David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said about the South China Sea in May 2015: “We claim the right of innocent passage in such areas, and we exercise that right regularly, both in the South China Sea and globally…We’re going to continue exercising that right, both on the surface of the waters and in the air.” Tit for tat.

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China, South China Sea Dispute, Philippines, USA, Spratlys, Artificial Islands, Reclamation, Regular Patrols, Military Conflict, Militarization, ADIZ, Air Defense Identification Zone