The Pentagon has identified five Chinese military ships in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, marking the first time the U.S. military has seen Chinese warships in the area, officials said.
The U.S. been tracking the flotilla – made up of three combat ships, a resupply ship and an amphibious ship – for days.
The disclosure comes as President Obama wraps up a three-day visit to Alaska and as China prepares to hold a massive military parade in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters traveling with Obama that the Pentagon has "not detected any sort of threat or threatening activities" from the Chinese ships, which are in international waters.
He said the Pentagon is "monitoring movements of the ships but that the intent is still unclear beyond ... that they are not detecting any sort of threatening activities."
The White House said Monday that it will speed up delivery of a new Coast Guard icebreaker to help patrol the Arctic. The U.S. also will map and chart the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas for the first time.
"We respect the freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters in accordance with international law,” said Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed the presence of the Chinese ships.
The Pentagon did not disclose the location of the vessels, other than to confirm they were in the Bering Sea, which lies between Alaska and Russia.
China is among the nations looking to exploit resources in the far north. In 2014, the first unescorted commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage delivered to China a cargo of nickel ore mined in the Arctic off northern Quebec.
The Chinese naval ships were spotted three months after a U.S. warship conducted a weeklong patrol in a disputed portion of the South China Sea, where China has dredged coral and sand to build an airstrip on what it claims is sovereign territory. A Chinese navy vessel trailed the U.S. ship for several days.
The Pentagon sent the Fort Worth near the Spratly Islands, which lie between the Philippines and China, to emphasize the U.S. position that they are in international waters, where ships of all nations may operate.
Navy officials said they plan to follow up with other naval patrols.
Later in May, a Chinese military dispatcher requested that a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave as it flew near Fiery Cross Reef, another island that China has claimed in the South China Sea. The plane did not change its course.
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