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China and Russia sent naval warships near the coast of Alaska during a joint naval patrol earlier this week, prompting a response from the U.S. Navy and condemnation from Alaska’s senators.
The two countries sent eleven ships close to Alaska’s southwest coast — nearing the Aleutian Islands — but never entered American waters, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. This is likely the largest fleet of Russian and Chinese ships ever to approach the American coast, experts told the outlet.
“It is a historical first,” senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Brent Sadler, said. “Given the context of the war in Ukraine and tensions around Taiwan, this move is highly provocative.”
Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska told Fox News the U.S. Navy mobilized four destroyers to shadow and guide the Chinese and Russian ships away from Alaska’s coast. A U.S. defense official said the USS John S. McCain, the USS Benfold, the USS John Finn, and the USS Chung-Hoon tracked the foreign ships’ movements and were accompanied by a maritime patrol and reconnaissance plane, the Journal noted.
A U.S. Northern Command spokesman confirmed to the Journal a combined patrol consisting of Russian and Chinese ships had occurred but would not confirm the number of vessels or their location.
“Air and maritime assets under our commands conducted operations to assure the defense of the United States and Canada,” a U.S. Northern Command statement said. “The patrol remained in international waters and was not considered a threat.”
A Chinese embassy spokesman told the outlet the patrol and its location was “not targeted at any third party and has nothing to do with the current international and regional situation.”
Sullivan called the move “unprecedented” and “concerning,” adding, “It just solidifies this idea that we’ve entered a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators in Beijing and Moscow who are increasingly aggressive.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) expressed similar concerns over the increasing tensions and explained the important role Alaska plays in foreign relations and national security, given its proximity to Russia. Murkowski pressed her colleagues in the Senate to support additional funding and resources for military readiness and capabilities in Alaska.
Sullivan called the U.S. response a “significant improvement” over the “tepid” American response to a smaller flotilla in September. That fleet got 90 miles from the Aleutians and consisted of seven Russian and Chinese ships, Fox News reported. In response, the U.S. dispatched one Coast Guard cutter.
“We ramped that up significantly. Four U.S. destroyers and air assets, P-8’s, that were tracking and monitoring this large-scale Russian-Chinese task force quite closely. So that is a significant improvement,” Sullivan said of the recent incursion and American response. “That’s a lot of naval power up here demonstrating American resolve.”
Admiral John Aquilino, the leader of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at the Aspen Security Forum last month that Russian-Chinese joint exercises have increased, according to the Journal. “I only see the cooperation getting stronger, and boy that’s concerning. That’s a dangerous world,” he said.
There is currently a struggle for dominance and power in the Arctic region, which is becoming contested territory, and the Russian-Chinese naval patrols appear to be part of that struggle, the Journal reports. Their work together in the region is a sign of increasing cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. According to the Arctic Council, which is an intergovernmental forum focused on the Arctic, the Aleut region, where the Aleutian Islands are located, is referred to as the “doorway to the Arctic.”
Eight countries that have territory in the Arctic make up the Arctic Council and are “stewards of the region,” according to the Council website. They include the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway, and according to the council, “Their national jurisdictions and international law govern the lands surrounding the Arctic Ocean and its waters.”
China, however, claimed it was a “near-Arctic state” in 2018 in an attempt to push for a greater governance role in the region, according to the RAND Corporation. It has attempted to establish gas and mining operations in the region and claims it is an “active participant, builder, and contributor in Arctic affairs.”