After two years of escalating maritime friction, China has sent a very clear message to the Obama administration: stay out of what we think are our waters or risk death.
The message was sent Sunday when five Chinese vessels harassed an unarmed US Navy hydrographic ship, USNS Impeccable, coming within 25 feet of the ship and forcing the US crew to man hoses to keep the other ship at bay.
A Chinese expert at the Naval War College, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and a former senior naval official during the last administration said that China was testing the Obama administration and had deliberately done so after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit and just after the US and China resumed bilateral military discussions.
"With typical brazen audacity, they did this just a few days after resumption of talks with us," said the former Bush administration official. "This is beyond the pale, even for them."
The Chinese actions were a clear signal to the United States from the senior political leadership of China, said the former naval official: "These guys do not freelance. They are not given letters of marque and told to act as they will on the high seas. This had to be approved at political levels well above the PLA leadership."
A Pentagon statement said that the vessels "shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the U.S. ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters."
News reports said the Chinese ships included a Navy intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel, and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers. These ships threatened the US Navy ship and told it to leave the area. The incident occurred 75 miles south of Hainan Island. China claims an economic exclusion zone of 200 miles.
As one of the ships continued to close while the Impeccable's crew sprayed them with hoses, "the Chinese crew members disrobed to their underwear and continued closing to within 25 feet." As anyone who's been to sea knows, 25 feet between ships of any size is extremely dangerous. One wrong move, one errant wave and men could have been knocked overboard and crushed.
After the Impeccable crew radioed the Chinese ships that it was leaving the area and asked for a safe path to navigate, two of the Chinese ships stopped dead ahead. The ship was forced to an emergency stop. The Chinese had dropped pieces of wood in the water directly in Impeccable's path. The former senior naval official said the Iranians have done the same thing to harass US vessels.
The US has delivered diplomatic protests about the incident to the Chinese here and in China and is publicizing this and at least two other incidents earlier in the week involving aggressive actions by Chinese vessels. The former Bush administration naval official said the US must continue to send in hydrographic ships to maintain the right to transit international waters and should keep warships close enough to respond to similar threats.
The last serious test of an American administration by China was April 2001, when the Chinese forced down a P-3 surveillance plane, just a few months after George Bush took office.
The Naval War College expert said the US must monitor future naval incidents closely to see if particular commanders and ships are involved. Gvosdev also noted the Chinese Navy has a new leader, who authorized Chinese ships to take the unprecedented step of moving to the Gulf of Aden to help deter piracy there. The last time a Chinese fleet sailed to that area it was led by the eunuch Zheng He in the early 15th century.