As President Obama is finishing his tour of the Arctic, the Pentagon is watching five Chinese naval vessels that are located off the coast of Alaska.
According to Business Insider:
The five ships are currently operating at an unspecified distance from the Alaska coast in the Bering Sea.
The vessels include three combat ships, a replenishment ship, and an amphibious ship, WSJ notes, citing Pentagon officials.
The presence of these ships marks the first known time the Chinese navy has operated off the Alaska coast.
But Pentagon officials told WSJ that the ships are not currently conducting any threatening maneuvers.
“This would be a first in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands,” an unnamed defense official told WSJ about the Chinese vessels. “I don’t think we’d characterize anything they’re doing as threatening.”
The presence of the ships so far from the Chinese coast reflects Beijing’s goal of having a military that can operate abroad and project Chinese power. China has been quickly upgrading its arsenal with a slew of new equipment, including nuclear-powered submarines, ballistic missiles, and next-generation fighter jets.
Chief among China’s military modernization goals, and its desire to become East Asia’s dominant power, is the acquisition of a “blue-water navy.” This would be a force capable of operating for extended periods in the open ocean, away from the coasts or support bases.
Such a naval force would serve the dual purposes of allowing China to protect its vital trade routes while also allowing it to project force far beyond its coastline.
The presence of Chinese military vessels in the Bering Sea, far away from the Chinese coast, demonstrates the strides China has made in working toward its blue-water navy goals.
China, although not an Arctic state, has invested significant political capital in improving relations with various Arctic countries, including Denmark and Norway.
Beijing has also started constructing a fleet of icebreakers with the goal of maximizing future trade through a Northern Sea route as the Arctic ice melts.
This route would cut travel time between Shanghai and Europe by as much as 22%, when compared to the current Suez Canal route.
If the Northern Sea route does become increasingly viable as the Arctic ice melts, the US will likely see an increasing number of Chinese ships off its Alaskan coast.
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