- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
On Dec. 5, the U.S. missile-carrying cruiser Cowpens almost collided with a Chinese ship in international waters. The Cowpens was observing the maiden voyage of China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (pictured above), when a vessel accompanying it cut across the Cowpens’ bow less than 200 yards away, forcing it to change course. Chinese and U.S. sources agreed that this was the most serious incident between the two countries’ navies since 2009, when Chinese ships harassed a U.S. vessel about 75 miles away from southern China’s Hainan island — but Chinese officials are speaking louder about it than their U.S. counterparts. After the story was first reported on Dec. 13, an unnamed senior U.S. defense official told the New York Times that the Chinese ship had been "particularly aggressive" and "unhelpful in trying to increase cooperation between the two navies;" other major U.S. media reports cite unnamed officials as well. But Chinese were willing to go on-record with their side of the story: Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo told the state-run People’s Daily that the Cowpens had provoked the confrontation.
On Dec. 16, an article in People’s Daily Online, a website affiliated with the prominent Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, quoted Yin stating that the Cowpens had been "carelessly sailing" in an area where Chinese ships were conducting a drill, seriously affecting their safety in what Yin called a "severe violation of regulations." Because China had reported to international authorities that it would be carrying out a drill in that space, Yin argued, the U.S. ships should have stayed out of the way. "You can sail freely and we can too, but your freedom to sail cannot impact our freedom to sail," he said, according to the article. "The instant you interfere with our sailing, sorry, but we will block you." (A Pacific Fleet spokesman declined to comment on Yin’s remarks.)
These words come amid efforts by China to assert its claim over a number of disputed territories in South China Sea and East China Sea. On Nov. 25, Chinese authorities established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), in which China requires all foreign aircraft to report their presence, that extended over an island chain which the Chinese claim and call the Diaoyu, and which the Japanese administer and call the Senkakus. Through repeated confrontations with Japan and the Philippines, China has taken stronger stances in its territorial claims than it did in years past.
Yin’s words also seem to show a more assertive China. But while the somewhat hawkish Yin is a credible high-ranking official, he is also actively engaged in China’s domestic propaganda efforts, as is the People’s Daily. The article featuring his quote was likely intended for a Chinese rather than international audience — it is not available in English. It is also telling that Chinese media only commented on the incident after U.S. authorities publicly acknowledged it on Dec. 13. Still, that’s more than a U.S. official was willing to say publically, even if Yin is preaching to the choir.