U.S., China Vow To Cooperate

U.S. and Chinese officials pledge to work together to avoid further naval confrontations.

SOUTH CHINA SEA: A crewman on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed mapping equipment of the USNS Impeccable.
U.S. Navy

Updated March 12, 6:49 p.m.

WASHINGTON—The United States and China plan to work together to avoid further naval run-ins after the latest incident in the South China Sea, according to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton said she discussed the incident with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during his visit to the State Department on Wednesday and that the two had agreed to “ensure that such incidents do not happen again in the future.”

“The important point of agreement coming out of my discussions with Minister Yang is that we must work hard in the future to avoid such incidents, and to avoid this particular incident having consequences that are unforeseen,” Clinton said.

President Barack Obama met on Thursday with Yang and according to the White House stressed the importance of increasing the level and frequency of U.S.-China military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid future incidents.

China says a U.S. Navy mapping ship confronted by Chinese vessels Sunday was operating illegally in China's exclusive economic zone. The United States says that Chinese ships surrounded and harassed the Navy vessel in international waters in the South China Sea.

Frequent challenges

Map showing naval incident between US and China.
Graphic: RFA
“It sounds as if the challenges were becoming increasingly aggressive and dangerous,” Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation here, said.

“The reason this incident will not cause the same degree of fallout that the 2001 EP-3 incident caused is there was not a collision,” he said, referring to an incident in which China forced the landing of a U.S. spy plane and seized the crew after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese pilot died.

“It was important that the U.S. blew the whistle before there was an accident.”

Richard C. Bush III, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here, agreed.

“The big difference between this one and previous episodes of this kind is that there was no Chinese loss of life,” Bush said. “If there had been, the regime probably would have allowed more hyperbolic coverage and commentary.”

“This went into the realm of the highly provocative...The actions of the Chinese vessels involved were not very professional. Somebody decided there was some value in getting it out,” he said.

Zheng Jiwen, editor of Taiwan’s Asia-Pacific Defense journal, said this incident wasn’t unusual.

“My take is that such incidents have occurred before.  But the fact that this time the U.S. side opted to release the information in the form of a news bulletin on the U.S. Navy’s Web site means the U.S. intended to highlight the issue, perhaps to urge the Chinese side to behave in a more restrained manner,” Zheng said.

Disputed waters

<em>SOUTH CHINA SEA: Two Chinese trawlers stop directly in front of the USNS Impeccable, forcing the ship to conduct an emergency "all stop" in order to avoid collision, March 8, 2009. Photo: U.S. Navy</em>
U.S. Navy
The incident came just a week after Washington and Beijing resumed high-level talks between their militaries, broken off in 2008 by Beijing over a U.S. $6.5 billion arms deal with Taiwan—a self-governing island Beijing regards as a renegade province.

Guan Jianqiang, an international law expert at Shanghai's East China University of Politics and Law, told Reuters that China has recorded at least 200 instances of U.S. vessels collecting intelligence in China's exclusive economic zone, but generally chose to avoid confrontation.

The Pentagon said five Chinese vessels blocked and surrounded a U.S. surveillance ship, the Impeccable, in international waters. One of the ships came within 25 feet (8 meters) of the Impeccable, it said.

The United States and other countries consider most of the South China Sea international waters, but China claims an economic “exclusion zone” extending 200 nautical miles (230 miles) off its coast.

The Heritage Foundation’s Walter Loham said in an editorial to Fox News that while the Washington is pushing China to increase its responsibility in the international community, Beijing is focusing on its sovereignty over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

“Contact with the Chinese military is a good thing. It can build appreciation for each side’s capabilities and reduce the prospects of miscalculation and conflict,” Lohman said.

“The Chinese value their territorial claims far more than they value contact with the U.S. military. They certainly aren’t going to allow the prospects of improved military relations, especially given its legal restraints, to prevent them from asserting their sovereignty,” he said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Xiu and in English by Joshua Lipes. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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