War Games in the South China Sea: Behind the U.S.-China Spat

War Games in the South China Sea: Behind the U.S.-China Spat

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, both agreed on Wednesday that China and the U.S. should work to ensure that incidents like Sunday’s showdown in the South China Sea “do not happen again.” The incident in question involved several Chinese naval vessels harassing a U.S. surveillance ship off the island of Hainan. But despite the soothing words of the two top diplomats, it’s a safe bet that more such incidents can be expected in the future. The Pentagon was quick to note that the mariners aboard the U.S.N.S. Impeccable were civilians working for the Military Sealift Command, while the Chinese side stressed that the confrontation involved local fishing boats. The reality is that the incident occurred because both sides are preparing for war — “shaping the battlefield,” in military jargon — for a conflict that both hope will never happen.

The U.S. wants to know how well it can track Chinese submarines moving in
and out of their new and growing base off Hainan. And the Chinese want to prevent the U.S. from gathering such intelligence. Both sides claim legal cover for their actions, which suggests that similar showdowns will occur in the future. But such events, far from home and with few if any independent eyewitnesses, can quickly escalate into more serious confrontations — as in the case of the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” by North Vietnamese patrol boats against a pair of U.S. Navy destroyers that President Lyndon B. Johnson used as a pretext to win congressional
support for his war in Vietnam.

The U.S.-China confrontation took place while the Impeccable was sailing 75 miles south of China’s newest sub base, Yulin, at the southern tip of Hainan. The U.S. vessel
carries sophisticated surveillance equipment that was in use — Chinese sailors used poles in an effort to snag the Impeccable’s towed acoustic array sonars, which dangle beneath the vessel. The gear was most likely being used to try to detect the movements of
Chinese subs in and out of Yulin, where Beijing’s new Shang-class nuclear-powered attack subs have recently been spotted.

Any intelligence gathered would be useful in a future showdown. Because U.S. aircraft carriers would play a vital role in any clash with China over Taiwan, being able to bottle up Chinese subs at their base — and measuring the range from their base within which U.S.
technology could be used to hunt them before they escape into the open sea,
where they would be much more difficult to detect — are key U.S. intelligence
goals. The data collected by vessels like the Impeccable, along with detailed maps of the ocean floor near the Chinese base that would guide U.S. sub hunters, are funneled into massive U.S. Navy databases that are invaluable in time of war.

China’s sensitivity about Hainan and the surrounding area is well-known. It was in the same area, early in 2001, that a Chinese J-8 fighter
plane collided with a U.S. Navy spy plane, killing the fighter pilot and
damaging the Navy’s EP-3 so severely that it and its 24-member crew were
forced to land on the island, where they were held for 11 days in a
tense diplomatic standoff. For both that run-in and this recent one, China said the U.S. was operating illegally inside its 200-mile “exclusive economic zone,” based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. China signed that treaty, but the U.S. did not.

Most legal experts say the U.S. was well within its rights to prowl
where it was at the time it was approached by the Chinese armada on
Sunday. “The U.S. was collecting undersea data that is related to war-fighting and is not banned by the treaty rules covering exploitation of
resources in the economic zone,” writes John McCreary, a military-intelligence veteran of more
than three decades, on his NightWatch blog. “The
Chinese are just angry that the U.S. Navy can watch them.”

The Impeccable eventually sailed free of the Chinese fleet, which
included, according to Pentagon officials, a Chinese navy intelligence-collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries patrol vessel, a State
Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel and two small Chinese-flagged
trawlers. McCreary noted that the two fishing trawlers involved were about
as “civilian” as the government-owned U.S. spy ship. “The Chinese, like the
North Koreans, the Indians and the Soviets, maintain positive control of
fishing fleets which come under military supervision in a crisis,” McCreary
said on NightWatch on Wednesday. “Fishing boats are built to military
standards, usually have weapons mounts or fittings for depth charges and
have military-approved communications.” Thankfully, this time at least, the
Impeccable slipped through the net.