Thu, May 07, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Bold PRC vessels alarm Pentagon

By William Lowther  /  STAFF REPORTER IN WASHINGTON, with agencies

A woman and a girl rest in front of a poster showing Chinese soldiers marching against the sunset at the Military Museum in Beijing yesterday. The Pentagon is concerned by a series of incidents involving Chinese ships harassing naval vessels.


The Pentagon is becoming increasingly alarmed by Chinese fishing vessels harassing US intelligence-gathering ships.

While senior officials have played down the incidents in public, the US State Department has launched a behind-the-scenes diplomatic push to persuade Beijing to stop the dangerous tactic before it gets out of hand.

The concern is that if the incidents continue, a serious clash could happen — potentially costing lives and resulting in an international crisis.

The latest confrontation, the fourth in a month, occurred on Friday when two Chinese-flagged fishing boats came within 30m of the USNS Victorious in an “unsafe and dangerous” fashion, the Pentagon said in a statement on Tuesday.

China said yesterday the US vessel violated maritime law and urged the US to take steps to avoid a repetition.

US officials said the incident lasted about an hour and the unarmed Victorious, which is equipped with state-of-the-art scientific equipment to map the ocean floor and track submarines, sounded its alarm and shot water from its fire hoses.

But the fishing boats did not leave until the Victorious radioed a nearby Chinese military ship for help, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

He said the US vessel was conducting “routine operations” in the Yellow Sea and was in international waters.

After incidents in March that included similar but more aggressive Chinese maneuvers, the Pentagon protested to Beijing and issued a strong public statement calling the Chinese actions harassment.

But this week Whitman refused to characterize the Chinese actions and appeared to play them down.

“We will be developing a way forward to deal with this diplomatically,” he said when asked why the tone of his initial reaction was muted.

In its statement, the Pentagon said the “USNS Victorious was conducting routine operations on Friday, May 1, in international waters in the Yellow Sea in accordance with customary international law, when two Chinese fishing vessels closed in on and maneuvered in close proximity to the Victorious. The intentions of the Chinese fishing vessels were not known.”

The statement added that the Victorious radioed the WAGOR 17 Chinese government ship, which came and shone a light on one of the fishing vessels. Both of the fishing vessels then moved away.

“WAGOR 17 took positive steps, pursuant to their obligation under Article 94 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, to ensure their flagged vessels navigate safely,” the statement said.

All of the incidents this year took place in a disputed band of water far off the Chinese coastline but within what Beijing considers a 320km economic zone under its control. Under international law, the zone gives a state certain rights over the use of natural resources.

The Chinese position clashes with the cardinal principles of the US doctrine of ocean navigation — the right to unrestricted passage in international waters as long as vessels are not encroaching on the economic interests of the country they pass.

But China’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday: “The US surveillance vessel USNS Victorious violated relevant international laws and Chinese laws and regulations by entering into China’s exclusive economic zone in the Yellow Sea without China’s approval.”

“The Chinese side expresses its concern and has demanded that the US side take measures to avoid similar events from happening again,” the ministry said in a statement on its Web site.

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