U.S., China Navy Spat May Have Broad Implications

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Chinese naval commanders have accused the U.S. of illegally collecting military intelligence in the South China Sea. Beijing has rejected U.S. complaints that Chinese vessels earlier had harassed a U.S. Navy ship in the area. The incident may complicate matters as China's foreign minister is in Washington to lay the groundwork for the first meeting between the two country's presidents.


We're going to find out what we can learn from a case of international name calling. China has accused the U.S. Navy of illegally collecting military intelligence in the South China Sea. The U.S. complains that Chinese vessels harassed a U.S. ship in the area over the weekend. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the incident may signal a tougher Chinese stance toward U.S. intelligence collection near its shores.

ANTHONY KUHN: The Americans are villains crying foul first, Chinese Navy Deputy Chief of Staff Zhang Deshun told the China News Service. He said that the U.S. naval ship Impeccable was doing ocean surveying for military purposes in China's exclusive economic zone and infringing on China's sovereignty. This follows remarks yesterday by foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, who said that the Impeccable was operating in violation of international law.

Mr. MA ZHAOXU (Spokesman, China Foreign Ministry): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We demanded that the U.S. immediately stop these activities, Ma said, and take measures to ensure that such incidents don't happen again.

The U.S. says it considers the exclusive economic zones, which extend 120 nautical miles offshore, to be international waters. Yesterday, U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair noted that China was enforcing its claim to the zones more aggressively. He added that questions remain about the intentions behind China's ongoing military modernization.

Mr. DENNIS BLAIR (Director, U.S. National Intelligence): I think the debate is still on in China as to whether, as their military power increases, it will be used for good or for pushing people around.

KUHN: China has recently sent its navy to protect shipping against pirates off the coast of Somalia. It has also recently admitted its quest to acquire an aircraft carrier. People's University international relations expert Shi Yinhong says these signs of growing confidence.

Professor SHI YINHONG (International Relations Expert, People's University): (Through translator) The U.S. wants to collect military intelligence in China's exclusive economic zone. Maybe China could've tolerated this before, but since the Olympics, China's posture towards the outside world has become more hardlined.

KUHN: The Impeccable is part of the U.S. 7th Fleet and uses sonar to search for submarines. It was operating near Hainan Island, where China reportedly has a nuclear submarine base. Observers might wonder why China would want to get tough with Washington just as it's trying to build relations with the Obama administration. Shi Yinhong notes that several of the Chinese craft involved in the incident were fishing boats and functioned a bit like plain clothes policemen.

Prof. SHI: (Through translator) China didn't want to send in its navy or combat ships. It wanted to make an apparently civilian, low-intensity move. This shows that China values its relations with the U.S. and wants to avoid the appearance of military conflict.

KUHN: Analysts note that this incident bears similarities to the collision of a U.S. spy plane and Chinese military aircraft off the coast of Hainan in April of 2001. The U.S. EP3 airplane was forced to land on Hainan, and China detained its crew members for 11 days. China also demanded that the U.S. stop surveillance missions off its coast.

The two sides have tried to come up with a protocol to govern such encounters, but they haven't yet reached any agreements.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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