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What’s the Significance of the US-China Ship Scuffle?

March 11, 2009
USNS Impeccable. The involved with an encounter with Chinese vessels in the waters off Hainan Island.

USNS Impeccable. The ship that was involved in an encounter with Chinese vessels in the waters off Hainan Island.

Surprise news was that US and Chinese vessels had an awkward encounter in the waters off of Hainan Island. The facts of what occurred seem to be in dispute, but first reports say that a US Navy ship, which was recovering underwater SONAR equipment, was “harassed” by a small flotilla of Chinese ships and aircraft (read here and here). If the account is accurate, the operation by the Chinese seems to be more than a chance encounter, but instead suggests deliberate, if poor, planning.

Since then the State Department has lodged a formal complaint with China. And a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded with accusations and denials.

Bluster from both. There are two questions that come from this. First, who leaked the story in the news?

From the outside there is no knowing for sure. But news account cite anonymous DoD officials, which, given the nature of the incident, most probably is the Navy. But if that’s right, what was the purpose of making the story public? Embarrass the Chinese? Could be. But that seems needlessly provocative. And if the embarrassment was the true reason, then surely there would be photographs or video (the US ship involved was a surveillance craft) that, from the description, could have been humiliating for the Chinese government. Since that material has been withheld, the embarrassment is an unlikely explanation.

Another is that the Navy wants to draw attention about the Chinese threat. The Navy isn’t popular like it once was, both because the Army and Marines are the focus for combat operations; and al Qaeda doesn’t have any submarines for the Navy to chase. With Defense budgets expected to come down, it could be this is an opening salvo in a fight for Defense dollars. If that’s right however, it is a strange story to leak. The account is less threatening than it is ridiculous—and is reminiscent of the confrontations that appear on cable TV’s “Whale Watchers”. Probably this isn’t the explanation then.

But whatever the intention for the leak, there is a second, more interesting question: whether this story is a mountain or a mole hill?

Though on its face the story seems isolated, it also joins a larger pattern of interaction between the US and China in the South China Sea. Recall the midair collision of a US spy plane with a Chinese aircraft in 2001. In November 2007, during a joint US-Taiwan naval exercise, a Chinese submarine appeared undetected within torpedo distance of the USS Kitty Hawk. And to add insult to injury, the next month the Chinese refused the Kitty Hawk rights to port in Hong Kong for R&R.

Will the incidents continue to multiply? And if so, will they also escalate?

That may be the trend. The issue of Taiwan has abated with the election of President Ma and his China-friendly diplomatic approach. Still, as evidenced by the continuing naval confrontations, Sino-US relations seem vulnerable to sudden confrontations in the South China Sea. Watch to see how much play this incident gets in the relationship moving forward.

by a Disgruntlted Submarine Captain with Nuclear Launch Authority

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