China’s flash of maritime muscle against a U.S. Navy ship this month has put its neighbors and America on watch against a bolder push to exert sovereignty in regional waters.
After a decade of increases in defense spending that averaged 16 percent a year, China has the military means to enforce claims in the energy-rich and trade-heavy South and East China Seas — and to challenge U.S. activities there, as it did March 8 when five Chinese vessels confronted the U.S.N.S. Impeccable.
By Dune Lawrence
“China is looking to expand” its sphere of influence toward Guam and to the Philippines, says Tai Ming Cheung, a senior fellow at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in La Jolla, California. “The maritime arena is one of the most fluid and strategic for China in terms of how it’s going to defend and expand and protect its interests internationally.”
China’s move reflects its increasing international political and economic clout, which may lend it confidence in challenging the United States — and complicate America’s response. President Barack Obama needs China’s support in dealing with North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, not to mention its financial help in the form of continued purchases of U.S. government debt to support stimulus plans.
“There are much bigger factors at play, notably the need to keep China on board in cooperating in resolving the financial and economic crisis,” says Tim Huxley, executive director in Asia for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Just eight weeks after Mr. Obama’s inauguration, the Chinese boats crowded “dangerously” close to the American surveillance ship and demanded that it leave waters about 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, south of Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, which sent a warship escort.
China said the United States broke international law by spying close to its shores. The United States said its activities were allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
For Shane Osborn, the dispute seemed all too familiar. Osborn piloted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the same area in April 2001 — just weeks after the start of George W. Bush’s first term as president. The Chinese pilot died. Mr. Osborn made an emergency landing on Hainan, a beach resort and military base, where the Chinese detained him and his crew for 11 days on the ground that they had entered China’s airspace without permission.
The Impeccable’s encounter “was a little bit like déjà vu,” says Mr. Osborn, 34, now state treasurer of Nebraska. While tension died down soon after the 2001 incident, Mr. Osborn says he is concerned that will not happen this time, and he is quick to point out how China’s military has changed in the past eight years.
“They’ve made large investments in upgrading their equipment, and it’s starting to show now,” he says. “They were just at the beginning of it” then.
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