Sabres rattle in South China Sea incident

The US March 9 vowed to keep up military surveillance in waters off China and protested what it called harassment one day earlier of a US surveillance ship operated by civilian contractors for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The Pentagon charged that a Chinese intelligence vessel and four others “shadowed and maneuvered dangerously close” to the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea, then threw obstacles in the water as it tried to leave. During the confrontation, the Impeccable crew sprayed some of the Chinese sailors with a fire hose, causing some of the Chinese sailors to strip to their underwear.

The Impeccable is one of only four US ships worldwide equipped with the latest generation of sub-hunting sonar, known as SURTASS LFA (for Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System—Low Frequency Active). Chinese fishing vessels were apparently among those that harassed the Impeccable, as well as a military ship.

The incident came after a week of what a Pentagon statement called “increasingly aggressive conduct by Chinese vessels’ aimed at the Impeccable and a sister ship, including low-altitude flybys by Chinese maritime surveillance planes.”

The confrontation took place about 75 miles off Hainan Island, where China maintains a submarine base. Coming less than two months after the inauguration of President Obama, the encounter immediately drew comparisons to the Hainan incident that confronted President George W. Bush with his first foreign-policy challenge just weeks into his first term. In April 2001, a Chinese jet-fighter buzzed a Navy surveillance airplane in international airspace over the South China Sea, causing a midair collision that killed the Chinese pilot and resulted in the detention of the 24-member US crew for 11 days after their plane made an emergency landing on Hainan. (NYT, CSM, AJC, March 10)

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