More on the Incident in the South China Sea (Updated)

There have been further developments in the incident that took place in the South China Sea I posted on yesterday. China and the U. S. have filed conflicting complaints over the matter:

BEIJING (Reuters) — China said on Tuesday that a U.S. Navy ship involved in a confrontation with its fleet off the southern island of Hainan had violated international and Chinese laws.

Washington had urged China to observe international maritime rules after the Pentagon said five Chinese ships, including a naval vessel, harassed the USNS Impeccable in international waters on Sunday.

“The U.S. claims are gravely in contravention of the facts and confuse black and white and they are totally unacceptable to China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a regular news briefing.

But the confrontation was unlikely to do lasting damage to ties between two countries as they combat the global economic slump, a Chinese analyst in Beijing said.

Global oil prices rose 3 percent on Monday and held above $47 a barrel on Tuesday, partly on jitters about tension between the world’s top oil consumers.

Denny Roy, a U.S.-based expert on Asia-Pacific security, said the confrontation did not appear accidental, and was rather China’s way of sending a message to Washington that it wanted respect for its growing military reach in the region.

“I don’t think this happened spontaneously,” said Roy, of the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, “No doubt it had the endorsement of central leaders in Beijing.”

I think there’s another alternative. It may be the case that the Chinese authorities are supporting a handful of over-zealous captains as a face-saving measure.

Is there an expert on maritime law in the house? As I read the relevant conventions I suspect that the U. S. is correct in this matter but I’m open to arguments that the Chinese may be in the right. What are a country’s rights in its Exclusive Economic Zone? I interpret the convention as giving the possessing country sovereignty over the resources in the region without granting it the control it has over its territorial waters. The Chinese may see it differently.

As you can see from the map above the South China Sea is a highly contentious region with at least four nations having conflicting claims over EEZ’s.


The Christian Science Monitor provides this helpful morsel:

BEIJING — Chinese fishermen nearly made off with some of the US Navy’s most modern and secret submarine tracking equipment, it seems, in a South China Sea incident Sunday that is making diplomatic waves.

Unarmed American seamen on the USNS Impeccable were reduced to turning their firehoses on five Chinese military and fishing vessels — one of which approached to within 25 feet before the US ship withdrew, according to the US Navy account.


There is little doubt what the Impeccable was doing 75 miles off the coast of the island of Hainan, where the Chinese have built a major submarine base. It is one of only four US ships worldwide equipped with the latest generation of sub-hunting sonar, known as SURTASS LFA (which stands for Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System – Low Frequency Active, in case you were wondering.)

At one point during the incident, “the Chinese used poles in an attempt to snag the Impeccable’s towed acoustic array sonars,” reported the US Navy’s press service, quoting Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Had they succeeded, it would have been embarrassing, to say the least. In a 2007 environmental impact statement, the Navy described LFA as “the only available technology capable of meeting the US need to improve detection of quieter and hard-to-find foreign submarines at long range.”

With Hainan not far from Taiwan, the island-state that China claims and the US has pledged to defend against any attack, this is sensitive technology. The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was discomfited a couple of years ago when it was on maneuvers and a Chinese submarine surfaced a few hundred yards off its bow. None of the flagship’s carrier-strike group had spotted the intruder.

That certainly casts a little light on the situation.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Snoop-Diggity-DANG-Dawg says:

    WRT the EEZ, China is entitled to control commercial exploitation of resources within that zone, but it’s a tough sell to say that an oceanographic survey vessel is engaged in some kind of economic activity. As long as they’re operating greater than 12nm from China’s land, they’re completely legal.

  2. Matthew Stinson says:

    EEZs have no security functions, just exclusive economic rights (e.g. no one else can fish or drill there without permission). China is flatly lying about the EEZ concept here. It’ll be dangerous if countries can say no foreign vessels are allowed into waters 200nm from their coasts.

  3. JKB says:

    In general, you do not collect scientific data in another country’s EEZ without prior agreement. Otherwise, you may transit and stop in the EEZ. This contrasts with rights of passage through the contiguous zone (12-24 nm) where ships may transit but not stop except in emergency.

    There seems to be some differences of opinion between international convention and Chinese interpretation of military survey ships in their EEZ. But that is what the US Navy does, they exercise rights of innocent passage and other conventions routinely during their operations to keep the sea lanes open in the internationally recognized manner.

  4. Bithead says:

    There’s another possibility here that is seemingly ignred, thusfar; There is something in that stretch of water that the Chinese are quite interested in keeping secret.

    The captains in question appear to have been acting independantly, but I doubt they’d act in quite that aggressive a fashion, absent a standing order. The existance of such an order would be in keeping with something under that part of ocean that the Chinese are interested in keeping secret.

    Speculation of course, but if we’re going to do that anyway, why not cover ALL the options?

  5. Bithead says:

    There is little doubt what the Impeccable was doing 75 miles off the coast of the island of Hainan, where the Chinese have built a major submarine base.

    We have a winner!


  6. sam says:

    Well, it does strain credulity a mite to suppose that a state of the art US surveillance vessel streaming a towed array was just happening by a state of the (Chinese) art submarine base…