Despite US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to China (as part of a wider visit to Asia), the rumblings in US-China relations are starting to surface.
The most serious has been a tussle on the sea between a US naval ship, the Impeccable, and a flotilla of Chinese sea vessels. Both sides questioned the other’s motives, with Beijing accusing the US of conducting “activities in China’s special economic zone in the South China Sea [near Hainan Province] without China’s permission.”
In other words, the US was engaged in surveillance activities in and around Chinese waters.
The US, on the other hand, said it was operating in international waters, thus casting China’s behavior as aggressive in nature.
It might be recalled that in April 2001, a US Navy surveillance plane operating in international airspace over the South China Sea, near Hainan, had a midair collision with a Chinese jet fighter that was stalking it.
The incident resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot and led to the detention of 24 US service people for 11 days after the plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
The collision and death of a Chinese pilot created a volatile situation that was somehow resolved peacefully. The incident occurred just a few months after former US president George W. Bush took office in January 2001.
It was speculated at the time that the Chinese were testing the resolve of the new Bush administration.
If so, this new incident, not long after the inauguration of US President Barack Obama, sets a pattern for Beijing’s “warm welcome” of new US presidents.
Dennis Blair, director of US national intelligence, said this latest naval tussle was the “most serous” between the two countries since the 2001 midair collision.
He told a US Senate hearing that the Chinese “seem to be more militarily aggressive” in general.
There is, however, no clear sense as to why China acted the way it did. As a spokesman of the US Pacific Command said: “It is not clear what the Chinese intentions were. There have been a few incidents over the past week and a half. But who orchestrated this latest one, and why, we don’t know.”
It is clear though that when it comes to its perceived territorial waters, China is hypersensitive to its military secrets, particularly because it has built a submarine base on Hainan Island.
As it has done with Taiwan, China claims the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. This means that Beijing will claim the right to interfere with foreign naval vessels if it sees them in a surveillance role or threatening its security.
That is how the Impeccable was viewed as conducting surveillance in Chinese “territorial waters.”
The danger is that if China starts claiming and enforcing its writ over the South China Sea, there might be more incidents in the future like the one involving the US ship.
China is unhappy with Washington’s decision last year to sell more than US$6 billion in weapons to Taiwan, a decision that led to the suspension of Chinese and US military-to-military contacts.
It appeared though that following Clinton’s visit to China, things might improve. But the tussle over the sea has created additional strain on US-China relations.
The US is obviously worried about China’s growing military power, which is spurred on by annual double-digit increases in its defense budget over the years.