In a blow to China, the State Department declared that it would no longer allow unauthorized scientific research within American waters, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday.
China has a documented history of using ships to conduct data theft and illegal surveillance in foreign waters under the guise of marine research. A State Department press release said the policy change serves to "increase our maritime domain awareness" and "enhance maritime security."
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"The change in policy is consistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention and with the practice of other coastal states and protects American citizens’ interests," the press release adds.
China owns the largest fleet of state-owned research boats, and has often dispatched them into American waters and marine territory held by American allies. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese research vessels can clandestinely gather military intelligence, such as studying the routes of submarines.
Given the documented civil-military fusion in China, there is reason for concern about what an increase in militaristic and scientific ambitions says about the regime in Beijing. A recent Pentagon report detailed the extent to which Chinese military investment now tracks with an increasingly global grand strategy.
"I don’t think they’ve reached final conclusions on any of those yet," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia. "But their aspirations are not small, and they’re not limited to a single geographic location. This is global in scale."
In opposition to China's ambitions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has released statements defending international norms, including aligning American policy with some of the legal building-block elements of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"In the South China Sea, we seek to preserve peace and stability, uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law, maintain the unimpeded flow of commerce, and oppose any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes," Pompeo said in a press release from July. "We share these deep and abiding interests with our many allies and partners who have long endorsed a rules-based international order."