Why did China choose now to surround a U.S. warship?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2009 

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A crewmember on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable.

U.S. NAVY PHOTO — U.S. Navy

BEIJING — By confronting a U.S. surveillance ship off its coast this week, China appears to have sought to enforce ambitious maritime territorial claims and to have tested the mettle of the new U.S. administration.

China lashed out at Washington on Tuesday over the weekend incident, in which five Chinese ships confronted the Impeccable, a 281-foot U.S. submarine surveillance vessel, in what the Pentagon described as reckless and unprofessional behavior.

"The U.S. claim is totally inaccurate, confuses right and wrong and is absolutely unacceptable to China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.

Ma said U.S. naval ships must ask China's permission anytime they sailed within its exclusive economic zone, a 200-nautical-mile zone off its shores. The claim amounted to an assertive attempt to bar U.S. Navy vessels from approaching China's shores, even affecting transit of the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

Ma said the USNS Impeccable "broke relevant international law, and Chinese laws and regulations, and engaged in activities in China's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea without China's permission."

He urged Washington to "take active measures to avoid similar incidents in the future."

Some legal experts say that international law provides exclusive use only within the 12-mile territorial waters off countries' shores, and that foreign ships have free passage through the broader exclusive economic zones.

"So long as the ships in this instance were transiting the EEZ outside the territorial waters, it would not appear that China's position has legal foundation," said Lester Ross, a lawyer with experience in international law at the Beijing office of the law firm WilmerHale. "I think it's a substantial stretch for China to maintain this position."

The Pentagon said the "harassment" of the Impeccable, a towering twin-hulled vessel, occurred Sunday 75 nautical miles south of Hainan Island. It identified the Chinese boats as a naval intelligence-gathering ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol vessel, an oceanographic patrol vessel and two small trawlers, and added that one vessel had maneuvered dangerously close to the U.S. ship.

China is expanding a naval base for attack and ballistic missile submarines, which reportedly includes underwater tunnels for protection, on Hainan Island's southeast side.

The conflict has a parallel with an incident in the early days of the administration of aianHainformer President George W. Bush, which led to heightened Sino-U.S. frictions.

On April 1, 2001, two Chinese J-8 fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft that was 70 miles off Hainan Island, resulting in a collision with one of them, forcing it into the sea. The EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan, where China kept it captive for three months, long after the 24 crew members were released.

As in that incident, this week's scrap triggered heated reactions among ordinary Chinese who were incensed by the U.S. surveillance of its shores and proud of China's forceful action.

"What happened proves that whoever has stronger fists, his word is truth," an Internet user from Zhengzhou in Henan province posted on the Web site163.com.

Ross said that such military confrontations could stoke nationalism in both countries.

"There is a risk that doing something like this can inflame public opinion in the United States as well as China," he said.

The Pentagon said the incident was only one of a half-dozen "increasingly aggressive" acts against the Impeccable and a sister ship, the Victorious — which included flybys by Chinese surveillance planes — since last Wednesday.

U.S. naval ships and China's sizable submarine fleet sometimes play cat and mouse as they take each other's measure. In October 2006, a Chinese submarine stalked the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier near Hawaii and surfaced within firing range of its torpedoes before being detected.

In November 2007, China canceled a port call by the Kitty Hawk and several escort ships in Hong Kong. In response, the Pentagon ordered the carrier group to sail through the choppy, shallow Taiwan Strait, the first time that an American carrier group had made the transit since 2002.

China voiced "grave concern" about the passage but didn't claim at that time that U.S. naval ships had to stay outside the 200-mile limit.

The Taiwan Strait, which is barely 100 miles wide at one point, is a potential military flash point. Mainland China claims Taiwan as a renegade province, and says it has the right to seize control of the independently governed island.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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