Blair: China Gets ‘More Aggressive’ Against U.S. Ships

Daily News Article   —   Posted on March 11, 2009

(by Bill Gertz, – Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told a Senate hearing Tuesday that China’s military is increasing harassment of Navy survey ships, activities viewed by U.S. intelligence as the most aggressive since 2001, when a Chinese jet flew into a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and set off an international crisis.

Mr. Blair, a former four-star commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said a naval standoff Monday near Hainan Island is a troubling sign that China has adopted a more aggressive military posture toward U.S. Navy surveillance ships and is the latest in a series of incidents in international waters.

“In the past several years, they have become more aggressive in asserting claims for the [200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone], which are excessive under almost any international code,” Mr. Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“And this latest incident with fishing vessels and a PLA [Chinese People’s Liberation Army] navy vessel involved is the most serious that we’ve seen since 2001, the EP-3 incident,” he said during a hearing on global threats.

A group of Chinese vessels followed and harassed the survey ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea on Monday, the Pentagon said.

U.S. diplomatic protests were delivered to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing and to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Monday’s encounter was not an isolated incident. On March 4, a Chinese patrol boat shined a high-powered spotlight onto the USNS Victorious, which was sailing in international waters in the Yellow Sea, about 125 miles from China’s coast, the Pentagon said.

Chinese navy maritime aircraft flew over the ship 12 times on March 5.

Also on March 5, a Chinese warship sailed within 100 yards of the Impeccable after the aircraft buzzed the ship.

On March 7, a Chinese ship warned the Impeccable in a radio communication that its operations were illegal and that it must leave the area or “suffer the consequences,” a defense official said.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said defense officials on Monday asked Chinese Embassy officials for an explanation of provocative statements that appeared in the Communist Party newspaper from Inner Mongolia on Feb. 19 that stated, “If an American spy ship enters China’s sea area again, China will sink it.”

“We had not observed such statements prior to this article,” he told The Washington Times. “The Chinese Embassy was unfamiliar with the article. We are awaiting their formal response.”

Mr. Morrell said U.S. Navy survey operations near China are “lawful military operations under international law.”

The incident near Hainan Island is expected to be discussed Wednesday when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the State Department, a department spokesman said.

The oceanographic ship was 70 miles south of Hainan Island, carrying out routine ocean survey operations in international waters, when the Chinese ship and other government vessels approached it, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Mr. Whitman said two of the Chinese vessels sailed within 50 feet of the Impeccable. Crew members aboard the Chinese ships dropped pieces of wood into the water in front of the Impeccable, and two ships moved directly in front of the survey ship, forcing it to stop.

Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said his nation has addressed the Pentagon claims. In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry rejected the Pentagon protests and said the survey ship “broke international and Chinese laws in the South China Sea without China’s permission.”

The ships included a Chinese intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers.

U.S. survey ships conduct underwater monitoring and are viewed by the Chinese as military intelligence-gathering vessels.

The Pentagon has tried for more than a decade to negotiate a maritime agreement with China to prevent such incidents at sea. China’s military has rejected such an accord.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, “The U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white, and they are totally unacceptable to China.”

“We demand that the United States put an immediate stop to related activities and take effective measures to prevent similar acts from happening,” Mr. Ma told reporters.

The spokesman did not provide details of what happened or explain how the U.S. ship violated laws.

“We expect Chinese ships to act responsibly and refrain from provocative activities that could lead to miscalculation or a collision at sea, endangering vessels and the lives of U.S. and Chinese mariners,” a Pentagon official said.

Richard Fisher, a military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said China is harassing U.S. survey ships while using its own survey ships to assert control over Japanese waters considered part of Tokyo’s economic zone.

Additionally, the Chinese navy is seeking to build aircraft carriers and the missile submarine base on Hainan, he said.

The activities appear to be “the beginnings of a battle led by the PLA to assert control over the Western Pacific sea lanes,” Mr. Fisher said.

Mr. Fisher said he hopes the Obama administration will not give up the survey ship missions, which he said are critical to American security and alliance interests in the Pacific.

“These survey ship missions are all about monitoring sea conditions, data that is increasingly critical to successful anti-submarine operations, especially as submarines grow increasingly more difficult to detect by sonar alone,” he said.

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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.

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.

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.)