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May 25, 2017

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The truth about the S. China Sea

Unlike an aerial incident eight years ago, a recent maritime incident in the South China Sea is resulting in a fadeout, for neither the United States nor the People's Republic of China wants any more tension rising in their relations.

In 2001, tensions mounted to crisis proportions after a U.S. intelligence gathering EP-3 collided with a Chinese fighter over international waters in the South China Sea.

On March 8, a U.S. oceanographic survey ship was confronted by five Chinese vessels within what the PRC claims as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Chinese ships surrounded the survey ship Impeccable, which is unarmed, and blocked its path. Washington protested and a guided missile destroyer was dispatched to the South China Sea to escort the Impeccable. Beijing rejected the protest and charged the U.S. with conducting illegal surveying activities in China's EEZ of 200 nautical miles off its coast. No confrontation is possible, however. The curtain is falling on this brief non-confrontation play.

What's behind this incident in the South China Sea?

One thing is certain: The incident occurred because the U.S. is gathering information on the new thrust of China's naval power to its "first island chain," which includes Taiwan and all the small archipelagoes in the South China Sea, under whose waters are rich oil reserves. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is boosting its first island chain defense to back up its leading role in an emerging Asian free trade zone.

The PLA Navy is setting up China's largest submarine base on Hainan Island and planning to build an aircraft carrier. It is developing a blue-water navy. Intelligence gathering in the South China Sea is a must for the U.S. Navy. As a matter of fact, the U.S. had surveyed the waters around Taiwan exhaustively again not long before the Impeccable met with the hostile Chinese boats.

But intelligence gathering in a Chinese EEZ is considered a very unfriendly act, about which Beijing wanted to be informed beforehand. Washington didn't give Beijing any notice, claiming the Impeccable was operating in international waters just as its EP-3 plane did in 2001. So the Chinese had to respond in kind. They had the Impeccable blocked to frustrate its survey mission.

There's a parallel between the two incidents. Both happened immediately after a new U.S. president was inaugurated. George W. Bush was sworn in in January 2001. Barack Obama took office a little more than two months ago. It isn't too much of a coincidence that the U.S. high command wanted to find out how the new chief executive really was planning to cope militarily with the PRC.

The top brass needed to know what the president was thinking to do so that they might be able to better plan for the next four years. After the aerial incident, they found out Bush didn't want to follow Bill Clinton's softer line. Bush wanted "encirclement," a modified "containment" of China, and the brass hats prepared their defense plans accordingly. It's time to find out how Obama wanted to cope with the PRC.

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