Chinese response to US escalation in South China Sea

China Daily (3/13/09)

Pentagon reaction to row ‘inappropriate’

Naval officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) yesterday criticized the Pentagon for what they described as an “inappropriate reaction” after a confrontation between a US spy ship and five Chinese vessels in the South China Sea on Sunday.

They were responding to a media report that the US Navy on Wednesday assigned one of the world’s most advanced destroyers to the area to escort the USNS Impeccable, which continues to be in the vicinity.

The Virginian-Pilot report quoted a US defense official as saying that the destroyer Chung-Hoon “is going to keep a close eye on the Impeccable”.

A Chinese naval source, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the PLA has taken note of the US latest move and was watching developments closely.

Another navy source said the deployment of the destroyer reflects the Pentagon’s intention to “keep on pressing” China in the South China Sea.

But “the timing and the extent have gone beyond what you could call proportionate,” he said, without elaborating.

Shi Yinhong, a professor in American studies at Renmin University of China, said the US’ latest move is aimed at “maintaining its ‘right’ to spy in other countries’ exclusive economic zones”.

March 9, 2009: The Pentagon says five Chinese ships, including a naval vessel, harassed USNS Impeccable in international waters off Hainan. China says the US ship was carrying out an illegal survey. [China Daily]

“The Pentagon has been doing this for decades. It will by no means stop in the South China Sea, especially against the backdrop of China’s military modernization drive,” he said.

But he said China will never back off on issues concerning national security.

Fu Mengzi, assistant president of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said the incident should be interpreted separately from US President Barack Obama’s China policy.

“Obama seeks cooperation with China. But some hawkish US military officers don’t like it, which led to the spat over the sea confrontation,” he said.

He urged decision-makers in Washington to be “calm and cautious” when dealing with the incident, as direct confrontation will cast a shadow over the two nations’ joint efforts to combat the global economic downturn.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who is in Washington on a visit, will meet Obama (early today Beijing time), and that US National Security Advisor James Jones will join the meeting. They are expected to discuss the standoff in the South China Sea among other issues.

“I don’t think it (the standoff) will overshadow the meeting,” Jones said.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after meeting Yang: “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.”

On the same day, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said “from time to time, there are going to be elements that come up that cause some tension”.

“But the most important thing is that the US and China need to work together to solve a whole host of issues that the international community confronts.”

On Capitol Hill, Republican Randy Forbes, who is co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, said he expects to introduce a resolution condemning the Chinese “harassment” of US forces.

He added that Congress must send “a clear, loud message” that the United States will protect the “right of its ships to operate in international waters”.

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