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China-US sea confrontation may have tested waters

China-US sea confrontation may have tested waters

China responded sharply Tuesday to Washington's accusations over a confrontation at sea, an incident that analysts said could become more typical as Beijing beefs up its navy and asserts claims to adjacent waters.
The U.S. accused Chinese ships of surrounding and harassing its Navy vessel in international waters, coming within 25 feet (8 meters) of the USNS Impeccable and strewing debris in its path.
But China's Foreign Ministry said the American boat "broke international and Chinese laws in the South China Sea without China's permission."
The incident this past Sunday will likely be discussed when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visits Washington this week. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing lodged a protest with the Foreign Ministry and said the Impeccable had been conducting "routine operations ... in accordance with customary international law."
The episode, the latest in a series of confrontations between U.S. surveillance craft and Chinese coastal defenses, took place in international waters in the South China Sea about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of China's Hainan Island.
Observers said it appeared to be a deliberate assertion by Beijing of its claim to refuse rights to foreign navies wanting to carry out surveillance within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
"China considers that international law only allows innocent passage for military vessels in its zone, not activities that could be considered to have a military purpose," said Shen Dingli, director of the Center of American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.
That contention clashes with one of the cardinal principles of America's doctrine of ocean navigation: the right to unrestricted passage in international waters as long as vessels are not encroaching on the economic interests of the country it is passing by.
While the U.S. has offered talks on the issue, neither side appears willing to compromise.
"The game is on, so to speak. The U.S. says that if China wants to challenge what we consider to be an absolute right, then the ball's now in your court," said Ron Huisken of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center.
China has recorded at least 200 instances of U.S. vessels collecting intelligence in China's exclusive economic zone, but generally opted to avoid confrontation, said Guan Jianqiang, an international law expert at Shanghai's East China University of Politics and Law.
The latest incident had overtones of spycraft, but the U.S. ship is not, strictly speaking, a spy ship. It maps the ocean floor with sonar, compiling information the Navy can use to steer its own submarines or track those of other nations.
Hainan hosts numerous naval and air force installations and is the home of Beijing's newest submarine base. It is part of an overall naval upgrade that is adding advanced missile destroyers, diesel electric submarines, and possibly one or more aircraft carriers in coming years.
The U.S. and others are eager to learn more about those programs and their eventual aims, although Beijing has largely dismissed calls for greater transparency. Keeping out prying eyes and ears _ such as those aboard the Impeccable _ is a key priority.
"For the foreseeable future, China will continue to test the waters to see to what extent they can dissuade the U.S. from taking such a close interest," Huisken said.
The naval upgrade comes alongside a growing diplomatic assertiveness in Beijing, particularly in backing up its claims to extensive maritime territories to the east and south.
China views almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its territory. Its claims to small islets in the region have put it at odds with five governments _ the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Shen said the weekend confrontation was a message not only to the U.S. but also to neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines with whom it has territorial disputes.
The altercation between the two militaries was the most public since tensions spiked in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter jet collided in international air space off Hainan, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing. Occasional minor clashes have followed, none of which have led to a major crisis.
The weekend incident also comes amid an overwhelmingly positive start to relations between China and the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton receiving a warm welcome during a visit to Beijing last month.
Clinton was followed by David Sedney, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asian security affairs. His visit marked the first formal military dialogue between the People's Liberation Army and the U.S. since China canceled or suspended nearly a dozen exchanges last year in protest over a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.
Despite the positive momentum, the U.S. remains wary of China's rapid military buildup, fueled by double-digit annual percentage increases in the defense budget.


Updated : 2021-05-07 22:17 GMT+08:00