A Pentagon official confirmed today that five Chinese navy ships are currently operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. It is the first time the U.S. military has seen such activity in the area.
The officials said they have been aware in recent days that three Chinese combat ships, a replenishment vessel and an amphibious ship were in the vicinity after observing them moving toward the Aleutian Islands, which are split between U.S. and Russian control.
They said 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 President Barack Obama is winding up a three-day visit.
China’s defense ministry couldn’t be reached to comment.
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 protect the nation’s growing global interests.
The Chinese naval activity comes as Mr. Obama visits Alaska and the Arctic region to highlight climate change. The naval operation also comes just before Chinese President Xi Jinping presides over a World War II Victory Day parade on Thursday that the U.S. and its allies fear is being used to showcase China’s new military strength and ambition.
Mr. Xi is heading to the U.S. in late September 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 says 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.
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 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.
A search of Chinese state media and military statements online revealed no record of any previous naval deployment to the Bering Sea.
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 the nation’s 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 even the Mediterranean Sea.
The Chinese navy has taken part in antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 and held joint naval drills with Russia in the Mediterranean in May. Last year, Chinese navy ships made their debut at U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific, or Rimpac, joint naval drills in Hawaii.
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 its ship operations complied with international law.