Shadow Government

Get ready for more naval sparring with China

By Aaron Friedberg This week’s run-in between the U.S. Navy ocean survey ship Impeccable and a small armada of Chinese coastal patrol boats, as well as the subsequent decision reported today to dispatch a U.S. destroyer to protect the Impeccable, are significant on a variety of levels. Unlike the collision of the U.S. EP-3 surveillance ...

By Aaron Friedberg

This week’s run-in between the U.S. Navy ocean survey ship Impeccable and a small armada of Chinese coastal patrol boats, as well as the subsequent decision reported today to dispatch a U.S. destroyer to protect the Impeccable, are significant on a variety of levels.

Unlike the collision of the U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft and the Chinese fighter plane that took place almost exactly 8 years ago, this was no an accident.  Instead of a single hotshot pilot, flying beyond the limits of his skill, in this case five small Chinese craft acted in concert to intercept and harass a U.S. vessel.  This was a deliberate provocation, almost certainly authorized at the highest levels, intended to probe the reflexes and responses of the new U.S. administration. It was also the latest in a series of attempts by Beijing to assert its claim to restrict what it regards as hostile activity up to 200 miles from its coasts (the extent of its so-called "Exclusive Economic Zone") rather than only out to the edge of its internationally recognized 12-mile territorial waters.

The location of the incident, 70 miles south of Hainan Island (where the downed EP-3 made an emergency landing in 2001) is also important. It was revealed last year that the Chinese navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) has built a large new submarine base on Hainan near the town of Yulin. From here, the PLAN will be able to conduct operations in the South China Sea, where Beijing has a number of outstanding claims over territory and undersea resources, as well patrolling the sea lanes that carry oil from the Persian Gulf to China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The location of the base should also make it easier for China’s new nuclear missile launching subs to slip undetected into deep ocean waters. According to press accounts, the Impeccable was conducting surveys off Hainan that are probably intended to assist U.S. Navy in detecting and tracking China’s fast-growing submarine fleet. 

These events are the latest steps in a quiet drama that has been unfolding now for over a decade. Certainly since the end of the Cold War, if not before, the United States has been the dominant naval power in the Pacific, able to operate freely whenever and wherever it chose up to the shores of the Eurasian landmass. Now China is starting to project power into the air, sea, and space beyond its terrestrial boundaries. And it has begun to challenge U.S. preponderance on, over, and under the Western Pacific. Neither country has any interest in provoking a conflict, but neither is going to simply back down and give way before the other. Military-to-military discussions and the establishment of agreed procedures and operational parameters may help avoid some dangerous incidents, but they will not remove the fundamental sources of the blossoming strategic rivalry between the two Pacific powers.

One final point deserves mention: This week’s events coincided with ongoing discussions about how the United States and China can best coordinate their policies so as to limit the damage from the ongoing global economic crisis and restore a favorable climate for investment and trade. This mix of cooperation and competition is likely to characterize Sino-American relations for the next several decades, and perhaps beyond. What we do not know yet is which of the two elements will be more prominent.

Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987, and co-director of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Center for International Security Studies.

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