From the March 16, 2009 National Interest
March 16, 2009
by Richard Weitz
China and the United States almost got into a hot confrontation over military miscommunication once again. The two hegemons are fighting over more than U.S. debt.
According to the Pentagon, last week five Chinese vessels undertook a coordinated campaign to impede the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance ship that was conducting routine operations in international waters seventy-five miles (one hundred twenty kilometers) south of China’s Hainan Island. Navy surveillance ships map the ocean floor with sonar to facilitate detection of foreign objects, such as submarines.
The Defense Department reports that the Chinese vessels maneuvered in front of the Impeccable, dropped wood in its path and tried to use poles to grab the ship’s towed sonar array. The department revealed that last Sunday’s incident was only the latest of a series of “increasingly aggressive” Chinese acts during the past week to disrupt routine U.S. Navy operations around China.
A Pentagon spokesperson warned Chinese authorities to “refrain from provocative activities that could lead to miscalculation or a collision at sea.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs affirmed that, “We're going to continue to operate in those international waters and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around there.”
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said that, “the U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China.” He accused the Impeccable of carrying out “activities in China's special economic zone in the South China Sea without China's permission.” Ma told reporters in his March 10 Beijing news conference that “We demand that the United States put an immediate stop to related activities and take effective measures to prevent similar acts from happening.”
According to international law, a country’s territorial waters extend twelve nautical miles (twenty-two kilometers) off its coast. A state can also claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) two hundred nautical miles from its shore. Beijing considers any intelligence gathering in its EEZ illegal, while Washington rejects this interpretation. Another complication is that China’s EEZ in the South China Sea overlaps with that of other Pacific countries.
These incidents occurred only a week after China and the United States had finally resumed senior-level discussions between their two armed forces. An American participant had described the two-day session of the Defense Policy Coordination Talks as the most productive meeting he had experienced during his eighteen years of negotiating with the Chinese military.
The Chinese government had suspended this dialogue in October after the Bush administration announced its intent to sell a record $6.5 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan. A series of Sino-American air and maritime incidents occurred during the previous eight years, beginning with the April 2001 collision by a Chinese jet fighter with an unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea.
The Impeccable incident also follows last month’s trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to China and some of its Asian neighbors. Clinton deliberately avoided confronting her Chinese hosts on controversial topics in public, accepting sharp criticism by some human-rights activists in the hope of staring the Sino-American relationship under the Obama administration on a positive note.
China and the United States have a regular mechanism to discuss these maritime incidents. The January 1998 U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) establishes a defense dialogue to avoid misunderstandings between U.S. and Chinese naval and air forces whenever they operate in close proximity.
Unfortunately, the MMCA—unlike similar agreements between the United States and other countries, including Russia—does not specify procedures for how the two countries’ armed forces should respond in unanticipated encounters. The MMCA has largely failed either to prevent or help resolve past Sino-American military incidents.
Hopefully, the recent incident will spur bilateral efforts to improve the MMCA now that the Chinese military has been expanding its range of international deployments. China’s recent decision to send a naval task force to assist with the multinational counter-piracy mission off Somalia, where U.S. Navy ships are also operating, suggests that the Chinese and American militaries will be increasingly operating in close proximity. Urgent measures are needed to avert further clashes before additional dangerous incidents occur.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
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