March 13, 2009

March 13, 2009 | Commentary on Asia, China, Taiwan

China Tests -- And Team Bam Blinks

Just two weeks after the Obama Pentagon crowed that the recent US-China military-to-military talks were practically the best ever, Beijing's navy confronted a US ship operating in international waters in the South China Sea.

Talk about a cold, hard slap of reality.

The naval affair was eerily reminiscent of the 2001 EP-3 incident, in which a clumsy Chinese fighter collided with a US Navy plane in the same area. Beijing dispatched five ships to shadow and intimidate the unarmed US research vessel, which was conducting ocean surveillance in the vicinity of Hainan Island off southern China. The flotilla came as close as 25 feet to the USNS Impeccable before finally backing off.

The Chinese are not surprisingly nervous about US activities in the area. They're involved in a major naval build-up, especially on Hainan Island; as part of it, at least some of China's new Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile subs will make once-secret Sanya naval base their home port.

According to a Pentagon report, the Jin-class submarine will carry the new JL-2 submarine-launched ICBM, capable of reaching the United States.

Moreover, once at sea, the modern Jin-class subs, armed with the JL-2's, will be difficult to find and track, having a multiplier effect on China's existing land-based nuclear deterrent - and overall political and military clout.

The incident is also symptomatic of increased Chinese muscle-flexing - both legally and militarily.

Beijing claims Impeccable was violating its sovereignty by conducting operations within China's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as identified under the United Nations' 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty. Thing is, the treaty doesn't give Beijing any right to veto activities outside their 12-mile territorial waters - and Impeccable was more than 60 miles beyond China's national waters.

The treaty gives them a right to object to certain economic activities in their EEZ, such as drilling for oil/gas or fishing - but that right clearly doesn't extend to noneconomic activities, including military operations, in international waters.

Then there's this week's congressional testimony from the new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, who watched China as commander of US Pacific Forces in recent years: He raised red flags about Beijing's increasing military aggressiveness in enforcing its national will.

Then there's the hypocrisy in Chinese complaints about US operations. Beijing's spies may be the world's most active today - against the United States and others.

Sure, China may not be parking a ship off the US naval base at Pearl Harbor - yet - but Chinese intel ops against US government, military and industrial targets using cyber and human spies are at record levels.

The Chinese conduct aerial and maritime intel work against their neighbors, too, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan - and US forces in the region, sometimes infringing on those country's national waters or airspace.

Another alarming element of the incident was the tepid US response. The Obama administration did nothing more than lodge a protest with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and call their defense attaché here on the carpet. What's next - a really mean letter?

Nope: After meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they'd agreed "that we must work hard in the future to avoid such incidents and to avoid this particular incident having consequences that are unforeseen." That'll show 'em!

The new team needs to realize that the United States must exercise its rights in international airspace and waters as we have done for years, including the right to monitor China's secretive and unprecedented military buildup - a significant worry to us and others.

Of course, given the White House's softly-softly approach to international affairs, it's no wonder the Chinese felt it was time to test our mettle after years of relatively quiet relations during the Bush administration. Imagine what they -- and others, such as North Korea, Russia and Iran -- have now concluded.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia, China, Taiwan

First Appeared in the New York Post