Drama on China's high seas casts U.S. as adversary

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By Dune Lawrence Bloomberg News
Published: March 24, 2009

BEIJING: China's flash of maritime muscle against a U.S. Navy ship this month has put its neighbors and America on watch against a bolder push to exert sovereignty in regional waters.

After a decade of increases in defense spending that averaged 16 percent a year, China has the military means to enforce claims in the energy-rich and trade-heavy South and East China Seas — and to challenge U.S. activities there, as it did March 8 when five Chinese vessels confronted the U.S.N.S. Impeccable.

"China is looking to expand" its sphere of influence toward Guam and to the Philippines, says Tai Ming Cheung, a senior fellow at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in La Jolla, California. "The maritime arena is one of the most fluid and strategic for China in terms of how it's going to defend and expand and protect its interests internationally."

China's move reflects its increasing international political and economic clout, which may lend it confidence in challenging the United States — and complicate America's response. President Barack Obama needs China's support in dealing with North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs, not to mention its financial help in the form of continued purchases of U.S. government debt to support stimulus plans.

"There are much bigger factors at play, notably the need to keep China on board in cooperating in resolving the financial and economic crisis," says Tim Huxley, executive director in Asia for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Just eight weeks after Mr. Obama's inauguration, the Chinese boats crowded "dangerously" close to the American surveillance ship and demanded that it leave waters about 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, south of Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, which sent a warship escort.

China said the United States broke international law by spying close to its shores. The United States said its activities were allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

For Shane Osborn, the dispute seemed all too familiar. Osborn piloted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the same area in April 2001 — just weeks after the start of George W. Bush's first term as president. The Chinese pilot died. Mr. Osborn made an emergency landing on Hainan, a beach resort and military base, where the Chinese detained him and his crew for 11 days on the ground that they had entered China's airspace without permission.

The Impeccable's encounter "was a little bit like déjà vu," says Mr. Osborn, 34, now state treasurer of Nebraska. While tension died down soon after the 2001 incident, Mr. Osborn says he is concerned that will not happen this time, and he is quick to point out how China's military has changed in the past eight years.

"They've made large investments in upgrading their equipment, and it's starting to show now," he says. "They were just at the beginning of it" then.

According to a report Feb. 4 by the Council on Foreign Relations, China had a "bare bones" military in the 1990s, "basic capabilities but nothing sophisticated or top-of-the-line." While the U.S. Navy remains far more powerful, the gap has narrowed. In 2008, China had 57 attack submarines, up from 50 in 2002, and 74 destroyers and frigates, compared with 60 six years earlier, according to U.S. Defense Department annual reports.

Its fleet now has the capacity for missions far from China's shore; in December three ships participated in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, where its cooperation with the United States spurred praise from American officials.

Still, the two countries disagree on international law governing a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone extending into the ocean from coastal nations' shores. The United States says its military surveys don't require Chinese permission; China says they do. Analysts note that the United States would never allow similar activity off its coast.

"We haven't gone to Hawaii and done surveillance," Zhao Guojun, former commander of China's East Sea fleet, said March 12. "If the U.S. takes provocative actions, it's hard to say what will happen."

On March 18, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates played down the contretemps, saying he did not think that China was moving to push the U.S. Navy from the area.

A day later, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, sounded a strong alarm, calling the incident "a troubling indicator" that China isn't "willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road." The country's "behavior as a responsible stakeholder has yet to be consistently demonstrated," he told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

Some of China's neighbors may be similarly concerned. On March 11, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that China had dispatched a 4,450-ton fisheries patrol boat to protect its interests in the South China Sea, which include the disputed — and potentially oil-rich — Spratly Islands. More vessels may be added to the mission, the state-run newspaper China Daily reported.

That may harm China's bilateral relations in the region, according to Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There's a baseline of low-level tension that can always escalate, and the increasing Chinese presence may raise that baseline," he says.

In the past few weeks, the Philippines and Malaysia have restated conflicting claims to the Spratlys, where, in 1995, the Philippines and China came to the brink of open conflict over alleged Chinese military installations on Mischief Reef.

Filipino lawmakers reportedly called the deployment of the fisheries patrol boat "gunboat diplomacy" and said the United States needed to clarify what position it might take in the dispute.

The United States may also face decisions about getting involved in quarrels among Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo in the East China Sea if Beijing tries to push its sovereignty there. All three claim the Senkaku Islands, giving them rights to energy deposits. Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan said in response to lawmakers' questions last month that the United States would be bound by their mutual security agreement to help it defend the islands.

Bernard D. Cole, an expert on the Chinese Navy at the National War College in Washington, says he wouldn't be surprised to see more assertive moves by China. Conflict with Taiwan, the main driver of China's naval development for decades, now looks less likely as ties warm, and with China's economic growth slowing, the military needs to justify its budget, Dr. Cole says.

The naval command, he says, may be saying, "See, here's the value to the country quite apart from Taiwan: we can fight piracy, we can guard the sea lines of communication, we can defend our sovereignty."