Sat, Mar 14, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Sailor standoff a cold shower for US-China ties

At next month’s G20 in London, an expected meeting between the US and Chinese leaders will test whether relations will sink or swim

By Simon Tisdall  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A hosepipe fight between US and Chinese sailors in the South China Sea has put a temporary dampener on the feel-good glow created by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent Beijing visit. China’s foreign ministry angrily accused the Pentagon on Tuesday of breaking maritime law, distorting the truth and engaging in “totally unacceptable” behavior.

Chinese military officials went further, hinting that the Impeccable, an unarmed US ocean surveillance vessel intercepted last Sunday off Hainan island by five Chinese ships, was on a spying mission. If so, this would be unsurprising. Among other facilities, Hainan houses a base for China’s ballistic missile submarine fleet. It is an obvious target for US military intelligence gatherers.

In April 2001, a US spy plane was forced down over the island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter. It was then-US president George W. Bush’s first international crisis and he was obliged to write and say sorry. In 2002, another supposedly innocent US survey ship, the Bowditch, got into a similar scrape in the Yellow Sea.

Beijing has repeatedly protested against US naval incursions into its “exclusive economic zones” — 320km nautical no-go areas such as that around Hainan.

Washington has not ratified the UN’s 1982 law of the sea treaty that created the zones and maintains its ships operate in international waters.

Although world oil prices rose briefly in reaction, the Impeccable incident was hardly on a par with the confrontation between waterborne Western imperialists and fanatical Yangtze River nationalists depicted in The Sand Pebbles, the 1966 movie drama starring Steve McQueen.

Regional analysts have played down its importance, arguing both countries have bigger fish to fry.

Clinton certainly devoted considerable energy in Beijing to stressing the need for joint efforts to fight global recession, climate change and nuclear proliferation.

With an uncanny choice of metaphor given recent events, the secretary of state declared: “We are truly going to rise or fall together. We are in the same boat and thankfully, we are rowing in the same direction.”

All the same, this latest spat could serve as a timely reminder of the many fault lines that run through China-US relations, which even a post-Bush policy of closer bilateral engagement and cooperation cannot wholly hide.

If the administration of US President Barack Obama was in danger of glossing over these points of friction, the Impeccable provided a reality check.

Accelerating military competition in the Asia-Pacific region is one major area of concern. China’s latest 14.9 percent annual increase in military spending, its recently confirmed plans to build aircraft carriers and its evident intention to project “blue water” naval power eastward into the Pacific foretell a significant challenge to US dominance by mid-century or earlier.

The two sides recently agreed to resume regular military contacts, broken off last year after Bush agreed to sell US$6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan.

But the agreement did not prevent the Impeccable incident. Speaking recently, Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command, complained of a continuing lack of transparency and candor on the Chinese side.

“It’s our desire to have more exchanges with the Chinese. We want to do more with them,” Keating said.

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