A touch of irony surfaced when a US destroyer patrolling the South China Sea sailed to the aid of the US ocean surveillance ship Impeccable after it was harassed by three Chinese government vessels and two trawlers.
The US warship was the USS Chung-Hoon, named for a Chinese-American naval officer awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest combat decoration, for heroic action against Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II. The late Gordon Chung-Hoon, of Hawaii, retired as a two-star admiral in 1959 and his namesake ship’s home port is Pearl Harbor.
That warship could outrun, out-maneuver and outgun the Chinese ships on the scene, but arrived after the incident to warn the Chinese not to return. The surveillance ship Impeccable resumed her mission, mapping the treacherous sea floor, islands, atolls, rocks, banks and reefs, and gathering intelligence on Chinese submarines based on Hainan Island, 120km away.
This confrontation, however, was far more than a skirmish at sea. It has turned into an early test for US President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) at the G20 economic summit meeting in London next month. Sino-US military relations are certain to be on the agenda.
A question being addressed in Pacific Command headquarters above Pearl Harbor is whether political authorities in Beijing ordered the assault or if the People Liberation Army (PLA) mounted it independently.
“It’s hard to tell,” a US analyst said. “But the PLA sometimes goes off on its own without telling anyone.”
The educated consensus holds that Beijing authorized the confrontation as it was conducted deliberately and timed to test the new US president.
Chinese government spokesmen said the US had intruded into Chinese territorial waters. When Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) was in Washington, all the White House said was that National Security Advisor James Jones had “raised the recent incident in the South China Sea.”
US military officers in the Pacific are concerned that the Chinese might miscalculate and overtly threaten or attack a US warship. As the captain would have the inherent duty to defend his ship, he could order his crew to fire at the Chinese. The consequences would be incalculable.
A White House press release said Obama “stressed the importance of raising the level and frequency of the US-China military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid future incidents.”
The Chinese broke off those meetings after the administration or former US president George W. Bush announced in October that the US would sell US$6.5 billion in weapons to Taiwan.
Pacific Command, led by Admiral Timothy Keating, has been trying to revive that dialogue, with staff officers saying the South China Sea incident makes such contacts imperative. The admiral met senior Chinese officers in Hong Kong last month, but to no avail. A Pentagon official, David Sedney, was in Beijing on a similar mission, but went home empty-handed.
At issue, moreover, is freedom of the seas, which is important to the US. China claims most of the South China Sea as territorial waters under its control. The US and most Asian countries disagree, as much of their economic lifelines pass through that sea.
China and the US agreed in 1998 to set up a consultative mechanism so that warships that encountered each other would have procedures to communicate, interpret the rules of the nautical road and avoid accidents.With this incident and others, such as a Chinese fighter plane buzzing a US intelligence aircraft in the same area in 2001, that agreement appears to have been thrown overboard.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer in Hawaii.
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