Experts Dismiss Sea Charges

Maritime tensions are likely to be a priority issue for the next U.S. ambassador to China.

2009.05.21
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By Michael Lelyveld

BOSTONThe United States and China have discussed their differences over close encounters in the South China Sea, but they still disagree over U.S. operations in offshore waters, according to a Chinese report.

On May 15, the state-run China Daily reported talks between the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, and China' navy commander, Admiral Wu Shengli. The April meeting to resolve recent maritime disputes came during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of China's navy, the English-language newspaper said.

Washington and Beijing have been trying to ease tensions over a series of incidents since March 8, when five Chinese vessels surrounded the U.S. Navy surveillance ship Impeccable in international waters 75 miles (125 kms) from Hainan island.

China claims authority to regulate activities in an "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) that extends 200 nautical miles (370 kms) from its shore, but other governments recognize its control only over a 12-km (eight-mile) offshore border under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In April and May, Chinese boats faced off with the U.S. Navy survey ships Victorious and Loyal in at least four more incidents in the Yellow Sea, the Associated Press reported May 5, citing Pentagon officials.

The unarmed U.S. ships have been conducting underwater surveillance and submarine tracking in international waters, the officials said.

China has taken strong exception to the U.S. missions, charging that the ships have been operating "illegally" in China's EEZ. In the meeting with Admiral Roughead, the two sides "expressed their views candidly," but China Daily indicated that the disputes remain unresolved.

After the March 8 incident, the Pentagon assigned a destroyer to accompany the Impeccable.

The Chinese navy has sent fishery patrol vessels into the disputed areas "to safeguard the country's maritime rights," according to the Administration for Fishing Affairs and Fishing Ports in the South China Sea.

Other disputes

But China's extended offshore claims have also put it at odds with a series of countries other than the United States, since its EEZ overlaps borders of the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia, the BBC reported.

Over the last three months, the Philippines and Malaysia have both asserted territorial rights to offshore islands claimed by China in areas that may contain commercial reserves of oil and gas.

On May 8, China's Foreign Ministry blasted Vietnam for submitting a report on the outer limits of its continental shelf to the United Nations, calling the move "illegal and invalid."

China has also urged the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to reject a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam as a violation of China's "indisputable sovereignty."

The series of frictions has prompted some Chinese commentators to suggest collusion between countries in the region and the United States.

"The U.S. has always wanted to maintain its influence in Asia through military means," said Yuan Peng, a professor at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, quoted by China Daily on May 15.

"It has conducted military activities around the Taiwan Straits and the East China Sea, and now wants to expand to the South China Sea."

The United States "is keen to see Southeast Asian countries in territorial disputes with China so that it can retain its influence in those countries and contain China's rise," he said.

'Collusion doubted'

China experts interviewed by Radio Free Asia disputed that view and the implication that Washington is behind China's border conflicts with other nations.

"I think the likelihood is quite low," said Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Chinese scholars and officials are fairly quick to see hostile intent in the actions of others, so it doesn't surprise me that someone might infer that some sort of collusion was going on for the purpose of containing China, but this one wouldn't be the first time that the Chinese have added two and two and gotten seven," Bush said.

Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, agrees there is little chance of a link between U.S. policy in the region and Vietnam's actions.

"The U.S. has consistently taken no position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Our only position is that we want the conflicts to be resolved peacefully," Segal said.

"The idea that the U.S. and Vietnam would somehow collude, I think, is pretty far-fetched," he said. "The U.S. is trying to improve its relations with Vietnam but we're certainly at no level where we're going to be coordinating against the Chinese."

New capabilities

Segal said U.S. surveillance activity in the area has been in response to China's new naval and submarine base on Hainan island rather than a reflection of "a larger presence in the region."

"The United States sees the Chinese pushing farther out into the South China Sea. It sees these new capabilities and it wants to...get a better understanding of what these capabilities are," Segal said.

Bush agrees that the U.S. Navy's mission in the area is to gather information on China's naval activities to plan for possible contingencies. "That's what our navy does," he said.

While the United States says it is operating under rules of free passage, China has interpreted the surveillance as a violation of a U.N. provision barring "any threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any state" in its EEZ.

"The danger is that, because we take different views, there may be some kind of serious clash, worse than what we've seen so far," said Bush.

Both Bush and Segal say the dispute is likely to become a top issue for President Barack Obama's newly nominated ambassador to China, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

"As long as the two sides adhere to fairly different legal positions and choose to act on those legal positions to establish their rights, this could be a long-running conflict," Bush said.

"What needs to be done is that the two sides talk to each other and create rules of the road to make the chance of some kind of clash much lower."

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