China-US Naval Confrontation in the South China Sea

Naval Confrontation: China Pushing U.S. Further Away From Its Territory

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

( – Disputes between the United States and China over naval movements in the South China Sea are not likely to end anytime soon, analysts say, as the two sides are divided over what activities are allowed. International law on the matter is vague.

Beijing said Tuesday that a U.S. naval ship confronted by Chinese ships earlier this month had been carrying out “illegal surveying in China’s special economic zone,” in contravention of Chinese and international laws.

The Pentagon said the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed ocean surveillance vessel, was harassed for several days by five Chinese ships, including a navy ship, in international waters about 75 miles south of China’s southern Hainan Island.

In the most serious incident, Chinese vessels “shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity” to the U.S. ship on Sunday, coming as close as 25 feet away, the Pentagon said. The U.S. has formally protested to the Chinese government, and says its ships “will continue to operate in international waters in accordance with customary international law.”

China’s reference to its economic zone arises from the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which recognizes exclusive economic zones (EEZ) stretching 200 nautical miles (about 230 miles) from a country’s coastline. The U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS.

EEZs aim to balance the desire of coastal states to control and exploit offshore resources beyond their 12 nautical mile territorial limit against other maritime powers’ interests in maintaining freedom of navigation. Experts say ambiguities in UNCLOS language, which is open to differing interpretations by different countries, have given rise to numerous disputes.

Beijing has long sought to prevent other countries from carrying out surveillance or surveying operations within its EEZ, and in 2002 enacted a law outlawing such activities without authorization. (At the same time, however, China frequently sends survey vessels into areas that Japan considers to be within its EEZ; the two countries have clashed for decades over surveying activities in waters both claim.)

Ron Huisken of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University said Wednesday that “both sides have dug in” and he did not expect that appealing to the “law” would help to resolve the issue.

He said he expected that China, “within the substantial gray areas in international law,” would want to reach informal understandings with the U.S. Navy that “err on the side of China’s interests in pushing the U.S. further away from its territory.”

“Traditionally, however, the U.S. has been fiercely protective of the freedom of the high seas,” he added. “A betting man would anticipate a steady diet of such incidents.”

Is intelligence-gathering a peaceful or threatening activity?

UNCLOS provides for “freedom of navigation and overflight” in EEZs. It says military activities inside a country’s EEZ must be “peaceful” and may not adversely affect the environment or economic resources of the coastal state.

Whether surveillance or surveying activities constitute “peaceful” acts is a matter of dispute, however.
In 2002, officials and scholars from the U.S. and several Asian countries, including China, met on the Indonesian island of Bali for a dialogue on “military and intelligence-gathering activities in EEZs,” co-sponsored by the East West Center in Hawaii and an Indonesian institute.

According to a East West Center report summarizing the dialogue, participants grappled with issues such as at what point a coastal country can reasonably regard intelligence-gathering to be a threatening activity.

One area of consensus was the determination that “no specific rules exist governing military activity in the EEZ except that they be peaceful, that is, non-hostile, non-aggressive, that they refrain from use of force or threat thereof, and that they do not adversely affect economic resources or the environment.”

But the many disagreements included different views of the meaning of terms like “peaceful” and “threat of force.”

China’s view on the matter was spelled out in a paper written in 2005 by two Chinese scholars, one of them a senior colonel in the armed forces, which stated unambiguously that “military and reconnaissance activities in the EEZ … encroach or infringe on the national security interests of the coastal State, and can be considered a use of force or a threat to use force against that State.”

Submarine detection

The USN Impeccable is a twin-hulled ocean surveillance ship designed to detect quiet foreign diesel and nuclear-powered submarines and to map the seabed for future antisubmarine warfare purposes, according to U.S. Navy data.

Towed behind and below the vessel are two sonar systems – an active one that emits a low frequency pulse and a passive one that listens for returning echoes. The system is known as SURTASS (surveillance towed-array sensor system).

“The SURTASS mission is to gather ocean acoustical data for antisubmarine warfare and rapidly transmit the information to the Navy for prompt analysis,” the Military Sealift Command said in a statement when the Impeccable was christened in 2000.

“China certainly would realize what this ship is up to, and would view its presence in those waters as threatening,” Jon Van Dyke, professor of law at the University of Hawaii School of Law – and an expert in maritime disputes and military activities in EEZs – said Wednesday.

“The U.S. anti-submarine low frequency active sonar is deemed vital by the United States in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, because we would then need to be able to find and destroy China’s subs, which are increasing in numbers,” he said.

During Sunday’s confrontation in the South China Sea, the Impeccable’s towed sonar systems appeared to be a particular target.

One of three photographs released by the U.S. Navy of the incident shows a crewmember on one of the Chinese vessels using a grapple hook in what the Navy said was “an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array” of the Impeccable.

Hainan Island is home to a strategic Chinese Navy base that reportedly houses ballistic missile submarines.

Last May, the Jane’s group of defense publications released new commercially available satellite images which it said confirmed reports about the existence of an underground submarine base near Sanya, on the island’s southern tip.

It said 11 tunnel openings were visible at the base, as was one of China’s advanced new Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), known by NATO as the Jin-class and reportedly boasting 12 missile silos.

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence in 2006 said China would probably aim to build and deploy five Jin-class submarines in order to have “a near-continuous at-sea SSBN presence.”

Resolving differences

Van Dyke, who played a key role in the EEZ dialogue in Bali in 2002, said Wednesday that in the course of those meetings it emerged that the Chinese Navy was behaving towards Japan and other neighbors in the same way as the U.S. Navy behaves towards China, “with regard to coastal surveillance etc.”

In trying to find a way to resolve its differences with China over permitted activities in EEZs, Van Dyke said, “the U.S. will probably try to convince China that it is in China’s interest – as an emerging naval power – to support the [U.S.-held] view that international law permits naval activities in the EEZs of other countries.”

Another factor that could “reduce the urgency of this confrontation” would be improving relations between China and Taiwan, he said.

Hainan island was also the location of an earlier, serious military-related incident involving the U.S. and China, which also raised questions in international law about legitimate activities in EEZs.

In April 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane on a “routine surveillance mission” was involved in a mid-air collision with one of two Chinese F-8 fighter jets which had been deployed to intercept the slow-moving aircraft. The Chinese pilot was killed.

Following the collision, the EP-3 issued a mayday warning and made an emergency landing at a military airfield on Hainan. The 24-person crew was held there for 11 days before being permitted to leave, and China only allowed the plane to be dismantled and airlifted home months later.

Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the harassment of the Impeccable was the “most serious” military dispute between the U.S. and China since the 2001 mid-air collision.


One Comment

Jack Watson

Why are US navy ships prowling off the coast of China?Thousands of US lives are at stake to satisfy the whims of navy commanders to make a point to China.
China’s military is improving and I can bet at least one US carrier will be sunk in any conflict with China.Of course the US will reign supreme but at what cost to the dead’s family members
US forces should be assigned to defend US territory from attack. So if US forces attack another sovereign country,especially china,expect the worst.China is not Japan which could not t attack the US in ww2.

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