Five Chinese navy ships are currently operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, marking the first time the U.S. military has seen them in the area.
The officials have been tracking the movements in recent days of three Chinese combat ships, a replenishment vessel and an amphibious landing ship after observing them moving toward the Aleutian Islands, which are split between U.S. and Russian control.
“This would be a first in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands,” one defense official said of the Chinese ships, which have been operating in international waters. “I don’t think we’d characterize anything they’re doing as threatening,” the official said.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington couldn’t immediately be reached to comment.
Chinese officials have complained in the past that the U.S. is meddling in their affairs by flying military jets near a chain of islands known as the Spratlys in the South China Sea.
The presence of the Chinese ships so close to U.S. shores is the latest demonstration of how China’s military is rapidly expanding its operations far from its own coast to oversee the nation’s growing global interests.
The naval operation took place just before Chinese President Xi Jinping was set to preside over a World War II Victory Day parade Thursday in Beijing, an event that the U.S. and its allies fear is being used to showcase China’s new military strength and ambition.
Mr. Xi also is heading to the U.S. later this month for a state visit, which has already been overshadowed by tensions over Chinese military activity, including alleged cyberattacks on the U.S. and island-building in the South China Sea.
China has repeatedly said that its military activities aren’t designed to threaten any other nation but are expanding in tandem with its economic power, as well as its interests and responsibilities around the world.
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that the Chinese ships were still in the area, but declined to specify when the vessels were first spotted or how far they were from the coast of Alaska, where Mr. Obama wound up his visit Wednesday.
Pentagon officials also said there was no information suggesting the Chinese ships had gone through the Bering Strait, a narrow waterway north of the sea that abuts Alaska.
“We respect the freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters in accordance with international law,” said Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, noting: “This is the first time we have observed [People’s Liberation Army Navy] ships in the Bering Sea.”
U.S. government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.
The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.
“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”
China has made clear its intentions to become a so-called blue water navy, traveling far from its coastline, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“We better get used to it,” Ms. Glaser said. “The Chinese navy is taking on more and more of an expeditionary character… the Chinese navy is going global.”
Ms. Glaser noted that she didn’t see the navigation of the Chinese vessels as particularly threatening. “China’s navy is going to increasingly become a blue water navy,” she said. “I don’t think we should be alarmed by it.”
The Pentagon has been scrutinizing China’s military activities outside its immediate region for some time. In recent months, defense officials have tracked those movements with increasing wariness.
China has been particularly active in the South China Sea, where it has been expanding a chain of islands by piling materials dredged from the ocean floor atop of natural reefs and rocks.
According to the Pentagon, China has expanded significantly its claims to these islands, known as the Spratlys, from about 500 acres at the end of last year to about 2,500 acres as of last month.
Defense officials are concerned that China’s island-building campaign has military aims that could create instability in one of the region’s biggest shipping routes.
Beijing acknowledged it was building the islands in part for military use, but said it can make territorial claims to the islands, which sit about 700 miles off the Chinese coastline.
While Beijing has since said it has stopped construction, a Pentagon senior official said last month that it remained unclear just what work Beijing had ceased doing in the Spratlys.
China has shown growing interest in using the so-called Northern Sea Route to transport goods between Asia and the West via the Arctic in recent years as melting polar ice has eased access for shipping. The route can take several days less than the journey via the Suez Canal.
The first Chinese vessel to sail the entire Northern Sea Route was an icebreaker called the Snow Dragon in 2012, and some Chinese commercial ships have used the route since, according to state media.
Beijing also has shown growing interest in exploiting energy resources in the Arctic region and in 2013 became a permanent observer to the Arctic Council, whose members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.
China and Russia held joint naval exercises off the Russian Pacific coast—about 2,000 miles west of the Bering Sea—between August 20 and 28, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Seven Chinese ships took part, including two destroyers, two frigates, two landing ships and one supply ship, Xinhua said but it gave no details about where the vessels went afterward.
China’s navy confined itself to patrolling its own coast for the first five decades after the Communist takeover in 1949.
But in the past few years, it has ventured deep in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Last year, Chinese navy ships made their debut at U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific, or Rimpac, joint naval drills in Hawaii.
As part of that exercise, three of those ships participated in a special “communications drill” with the U.S. and then made a port call in San Diego, Calif., according to a Pentagon report that was released earlier this year.
U.S. officials said an uninvited Chinese spy ship observed the Rimpac drills from international waters just off Hawaii. China’s defense ministry said at the time that its ship operations complied with international law.