Warships of the Chinese Navy have been spotted in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, around the Aleutian Islands to be more exact, but there’s probably no reason to panic. Yet. And here’s why.

The ships were spotted in international waters, according to the Wall Street Journal, and their appearance is just-so-coincidentally occurring while President Barack Obama is touring America’s northernmost state:

Five Chinese navy ships are currently operating in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, the first time the U.S. military has seen such activity in the area, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

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.

The ships are still in international waters, and haven’t crossed any American maritime borders yet.

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Five ships, including an amphibious assault ship, a trio of combat ships and a replenishment ship sounds scary! And it is scary, if you put no thought into it whatsoever and just generally assume that five ships would be enough to take over the vast wilds of Alaska.

But anyone who has watched even a single riveting episode of Alaska State Troopers knows that five measly ships isn’t going to be enough to bring all of your paranoid original-remake-Red-Dawn-fantasies come true. So what exactly are they doing there?

The Chinese government, of course, isn’t saying for the moment. But as this is the Internet, after all, we’re free to engage in slightly-informed speculation. We know that the Chinese Navy harbors blue-water ambitions that are requisite for truly global power projection. We know China has even gone so far as to purchase an old Soviet aircraft carrier (initially under the guise of turning it into a casino), just to bone up on naval flight operations. And we know that as the arctic ice melts thanks to global warming, the hunt for natural resources and the establishment of new trade routes is on.

Add it all together, and what do we get?

Well, the ships turning up near the coast of Alaska while President Obama is there probably is no coincidence. Five ships really isn’t a lot when you consider the United States Navy, the largest in the world, has 273 ships in its purview (not to mention over 3,700 aircraft as well). But sending those five to an area where China’s Navy has not gone before does reflect a message about ambitious power projection, a message President Obama probably heard loud and clear.

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China has sent similar messages to America’s leaders highlighting their growing military capabilities and technological ambitions at symbolic (if not embarrassing) times. For instance, the time when China flew its first stealth fighter for the first time right as he was meeting with top Chinese officials in Beijing.

And it probably also shows that China is not just capable of sending its ships to the furthest corners of the Earth, but that it is also interested in doing so. Sure, China doesn’t have any borders on the Arctic Ocean, but it surely wants whatever piece of that pie it can claim.

But if you forgive a terrible Arctic pun, we only see the top 10% of the iceberg. There’s probably a lot more going on here than just what we can see. Just nobody panic - yet.


Contact the author at ballaban@jalopnik.com.
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