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China Confronts U.S. Naval Surveillance Ship in South China Sea Testing Obama?

On Sunday March 8, 2009, five Chinese civilian ships confronted the U.S. naval surveillance vessel Impeccable in international open waters 75 miles south of China’s Hainan Island, home of China’s most advanced submarine base. The article dissects the incident from historic background to explore possible implications on U.S.-China relationship.

On Sunday March 8, 2009, five Chinese civilian ships confronted the U.S. naval surveillance vessel Impeccable in international open waters 75 miles south of China’s Hainan Island, home of China’s most advanced submarine base.

According to the Pentagon, Chinese vessels surrounded and harassed the Impeccable, a civilian operated ship. Chinese sailors waved China’s national flag and demanded that the U.S. ship leave. They also dropped wooden debris at the scene. At least one Chinese boat came within 25 feet of Impeccable, and its sailors used hooks to try to snag cables that the US ship uses for sonar measurement. The U.S. crew used water hoses in an attempt to drive away the Chinese boats but to no avail. Finally the Impeccable had to make an emergency stop to avoid a collision.

On March 9, the Pentagon issued a protest to the Chinese government. In a Senate hearing on March 10, Dennis Blair, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, called this incidence the “most serious” since the 2001 midair collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance plane. Mr. Blair said the Chinese “seem to be more militarily aggressive” in general.

To protect the Impeccable, on March 12, the U.S. sent heavily armed destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to the South China Sea to escort the surveillance ship.

China’s Reaction to the U.S. Protest

On March 10, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu issued a strong rebuttal: “The United States’ claims are gravely in contravention of the facts–they are mixing up black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China…. [The U.S. ship] broke international and Chinese laws in the South China Sea without China’s permission.”

Chinese Navy Deputy Chief of Staff General Zhang Deshun told China Press that “(The U.S.) is like ‘the pot calling the kettle black.’” He said, “The United States had the facts upside down. Its surveillance ship was operating in the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and our boats were going about their usual business. The U.S. boat was doing oceanic survey with a military purpose. That in itself was infringing upon China’s sovereignty.”

Neither the Foreign Ministry spokesperson nor the general offered specifics on the nature of the “usual business” of the fishing boats near the Impeccable. They also failed to explain why China did not launch a protest first, or militarily chase the invader out of China’s EEZ, instead of using civilians to “defend” its national sovereignty.

China is not challenging the Pentagon-released details of the incident. The communist regime based its argument on its interpretation of the UN sanctioned Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). In 1982, the United States reviewed the treaty and found some items objectionable. President Reagan rejected it. Since the United States is not bound by the treaty, debating it is a moot point.

But that does not prevent China from making its complaints. To understand the behavior of the Chinese political leaders, historical events offer some clues.

The Lessons of History

On May 7, 1999, a NATO missile, directed by flawed U.S. intelligence, hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens. The Chinese media immediately publicized the tragedy, claiming the bombing was intentional.

This incident triggered a violent outcry in China. Angry Chinese youths stormed the U.S. Embassy and Consulates with rocks and fire.

The Chinese government gave its endorsement to the violence by busing the demonstrators to the U.S. Embassy and Consulates. Oddly, when President Bill Clinton called Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to apologize for the incident, Jiang refused to answer the phone. Jiang’s odd behavior led some China observers to speculate that Jiang was actually happy with the outcome, because it could have had a favorable impact on his internal politics. Jiang, however, had to act out his anger in front of the Chinese people. Clinton’s untimely phone call could have spoiled Jiang’s “mood”.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk noted that the bombing occurred less than a month after a demonstration of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners in Beijing and less than a month before the 10th anniversary of the 1989 student-led democratic movement in Tiananmen Square. Shirk believes “[The bombing] was seized upon as an opportunity to direct Chinese anger outward rather than toward the Party.” [1]

Another clash happened three months after President George W. Bush took office. On April 1, 2001, two Chinese fighter jets chased an American surveillance plane southeast of Hainan Island, not too far from the site of the Impeccable incident, trying to force the U.S. plane out of the area. During the chase, a Chinese jet collided with the American plane, crippling it and forcing it to land on Hainan Island without permission. The Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, ejected but was never found. Wang was later designated a “national martyr.”

China detained the 24-member-crew and cut up the airplane’s sensitive surveillance devices seeking secret data. It also demanded an apology from the U.S. government. President Bush refused to apologize, blaming the incident on Chinese aggression.

After 10 days of intensive diplomatic maneuverings between the two countries, Secretary of State Collin Powell wrote a letter to his Chinese counterpart, expressing sympathy for the death of Wang Wei and regret for the unauthorized emergency landing.

Using the word “sorry” in Powell’s letter as an official apology, the Chinese government promptly declared victory and released the crew on April 11. Since then, American surveillance planes have continued their routine operations undisturbed.

For those familiar with the 2001 midair collision, the Impeccable was highly reminiscent: Both were started by the Chinese during U.S. routine operations, both happened near Hainan Island, and both were used by the Chinese government to instigate anti-American sentiment. The differences: This time the conflict occurred on the sea, the Chinese harassers were civilians, and, so far, there have been no casualties.

Interestingly, the Navy destroyer Chung-hoon that came to defend the Impeccable was named after a U.S. Navy rear admiral of Chinese heritage. In 2006 the U.S. destroyer hosted a historical visit by a Chinese naval destroyer in Pearl Harbor. Some Chinese believe that sending Chung-hoon could actually be a friendly gesture. In an article that appeared in the Chinese newspaper International Herald Leader titled “Why Is the U.S. Courting China in the South Sea?” Chinese military writer Hai Tao wrote, “The name Chung-hoon itself connotes some kind of Sino-American historical friendship.” In his opinion, sending a heavily armed naval destroyer to defend U.S. interests also satisfied the self-esteem of the hardliners and the general public in the U.S. [2]

China’s Clash with the U.S. and Its Low-Key Stance Toward Its Neighbors

China has a long list of territorial and commercial conflicts with its neighbors, and all seem to have more immediate and direct impacts on China than the Impeccable operation.

One of the most famous controversies is the Diaoyutai Islands (a.k.a. Senkaku in Japanese) dispute. Diaoyutai, meaning “fishing platform” in Chinese, is a group of tiny, uninhibited islets offshore from Taiwan. For years, China, Taiwan and Japan have all claimed ownership of the Diaoyutai. The islands were previously considered as having little value until 1968, when scientists suggested there might be oil reserves nearby. Since then, the Diaoyutai dispute has intensified and become a thorny issue with no clear solution. The islands are currently controlled by Japan. The Chinese government has been mostly silent on Diaoyutai, despite strong anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese.

Some independent observers suspect that the Diaoyutai dispute has been a decoy sustained by the Japanese (and Chinese) to conceal a cozy Sino-Japanese relationship. Eamonn Fingleton, a Tokyo-based economist and longtime Asia observer, believes the “hot button” Diaoyutai dispute is pretty much a show, a “theater of the absurd.” [3]

A more recent incident that could have touched a nationalist nerve in China came from the Northeast. On February 13, 2009, a Russian navy ship opened fire on an unarmed Chinese cargo ship near the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, sinking it and killing eight crewmembers. More than 500 rounds were fired to stop the ship, which the Russians claimed was trying to escape to avoid inspection. The Russian authorities defended the shooting and blamed the tragic outcome entirely on the captain of the Chinese ship.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s reaction to the Russian shooting was rather lukewarm, with China complaining to Russia through diplomatic channels, saying it was “shocked at and seriously concerned” about the killings but lacking any rhetoric of protest. The typical nationalistic reaction following such incidents was mostly absent from the Internet postings.

Furthermore, in recent months, Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia all took new unilateral actions to claim the oil-rich Spratly (Nansha Qundao) and Parcel Islands (Xisha Qundao).

The Chinese regime has been taking a pragmatic approach, which can be summed up as” “Sovereignty belong to China; suspend dispute; develop together.” This is a vague policy that may help others to claim the disputed marine territory.

According to a BBC article, some Chinese citizens are unhappy about the pragmatic strategy adopted by their government. They believe allowing others to partake of the resources in China’s territory is “in fact disregarding (China’s) sovereignty.” Some believe China should abandon Deng Xiaoping’s “keep a low profile” strategy and become more aggressive and “strike when the need arises.” [4]

China’s provocative clash with the American naval surveillance ship is consistent with such an attitude. But that is a sharp contrast to its low-key reactions to the conflicts with neighboring countries. Why, then, did China single out the U.S. for a fight this time?

A Need for Domestic Politics

Domestic politics could play a role in the current clash with the U.S. With the recent economic growth, the Chinese are feeling more confident. In recent years, a strong nationalistic sentiment has been brewing in China. The main target, not surprisingly, is the American “bully.” In an Asia Times article published on March 14, 2009, Jian Junbo, an assistant professor at the Institute of International Studies of Fudan University, suggested that “Chinese military’s tolerance of U.S. naval spy operations near its coast is increasingly wearing thin.” “China is no longer willing to always comply with America’s dominance in the region. Times have changed.” [5]

The Impeccable incident was China’s first serious attempt to stop a U.S. routine operation in international waters. As nationalist sentiment continues to build and China’s military power expands, such incidents have the potential to become ugly. In a recent article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, maritime expert Mark J. Valencia predicted, “such incidents are likely to be repeated and become more dangerous.” “Many sailors, pilots, and fishers may die” as results of future conflicts, he feared. [6]

Unfortunately, Mr. Valencia’s concern is not totally unfounded. The political hawks, represented by some veteran Maoist hardliners, make no secret of their ultra-nationalist views. In a widely circulated speech presumably made by former Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian in 2005, the retired general (or his ghostwriter) predicted: “The United States and China will eventually have a war.… we have to use extreme means to clean house (wipe out the population) in the U.S..” [7] Whether the aggressive statement was indeed made by the retired general, the inflammatory rhetoric nonetheless reflected sentiments among the leftists in China’s ruling Communist Party. The article was widely distributed through the Internet among Chinese Internet users.

Such propaganda frequently can be found in the state-owned media. For example, in a Chinese military magazine, Global Military [part of the PLA Daily newspaper group and published by China Defense Newspaper], many articles directly target the U.S. as the perceived enemy or mock the fight against the United States. (See the scanned cover and table of content of the magazine.)

Testing Obama?

Many observers believe Beijing’s communist regime is using the China-U.S. clash in the South China Sea to test President Obama’s new administration.

Regardless of what the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson may say in public, China’s leaders always pay close attention to what the United States thinks about them.

During the Clinton and Bush administrations, Chinese leaders made a great effort to shift U.S. attention away from ideological debate to economic cooperation. To a large degree, they have been successful.

In a Senate hearing in May 2008, Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “The United States does not have the luxury of making its focus what goes on inside China. Nor do we have the wisdom or ability to make China in our image.” “The emphasis of U.S. policy should be on shaping what China does, not what China is.”

Those in power in China obviously took note of Mr. Haass’ statement. An article published in China’s Guangming Observer, a Communist Party owned website, discussed the following: [8]

“(We believe) that America’s China policy should be ‘pay no attention to what China is, just watch what China does.’ On the advice of an American professor and China expert, several friends had a chat. We all noticed the huge change in the wind. In the past, the U.S. Congress was very concerned about ‘what China is.’ For example, whether China’s politics were based on democracy and rule of law, whether China had a market economy, whether Chinese culture allowed for diversity and openness, whether the Chinese people had freedom, and so on. The debate was endless. Now, all the sudden, they no longer care. What’s going on?”

According to the author, the U.S. professor told them that many of his friends are not interested in how the Chinese government treats its own citizens. “What does (China’s situation) have to do with the U.S. taxpayers? We (the U.S.) are not one of their provinces, and they (China) are not one of our states,” said the professor.

The current Chinese leaders are not shy about playing U.S. politics. They make it very clear who their “friends” are and who are their enemies.

When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Beijing in February, she made it clear to her Chinese hosts that human rights is but a secondary concern to the U.S. government. As a consequence, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiaobao welcomed her warmly.

Typing the Chinese words “Secretary of State Clinton” in Chinese top search engine, 577,000 items pop up, most of them positive or neutral; one rarely sees negative comments against the former first lady.

On the other hand, typing “Speaker Pelosi,” returns 142,000 items, many of them critical of the speaker. Some even use offensive or derogatory language to criticize her human rights position.

With the election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States, the Chinese government would like to know the new administration’s police on China. Initiation of a clash with the U.S. could serve as a test for the new president, to see whether the Chinese Communist regime will be able to win Mr. Obama over as its “friend.”

Sending the destroyer USS Chung-Hoon to deal with the March 8th incident in the South China Sea was seen by Americans as tough and decisive, while the Chinese viewed the U.S. reaction as a friendly gesture. The incident ended peacefully, and the U.S. ship continues its routine business. China did not seem to gain much, and it appears that they have backed down, for now, no longer demanding that the United States stop its surveillance. But China did not lose anything, either. The incident allowed the Chinese Communist leaders to voice their displeasure of U.S. military presence near China. U.S. allies in the region certainly should take note. The incident also gave China an excuse to complain about similar incidents the future.

[1] China: Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise, Susan L. Shirk, Joanne J. Myers
[2] Hai Tao, Why Is the U.S. Courting China in the South Sea? International Herald Leader
[3] The Dragon’s Fey Friend: Western Journalists Have Got It Wrong on Sino-Japanese Relations, Eamonn Fingleton
[4] Dispute on South China Sea and Nationalism, (BBC Chinese)
[5] Jian Junbo, China-U.S. Spat a Drop in the Ocean, Asia Times Online
[6] Mark Valencia, Tempting the Dragon, Far Eastern Economic Review
[7] Chi Haotian, War is not far from us, it is the Midwife of China Century, (internet version)
[8] U.S. new China Policy “Pay no attention to What China is, just watch what China does”, Guangming Observer