Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told a Senate hearing Tuesday that China’s military is increasing harassment of U.S. Navy survey ships, activities viewed by U.S. intelligence as the most aggressive since 2001, when a Chinese jet flew into a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and set off an international crisis.
Adm. Blair, a former four-star commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said a naval standoff Monday near Hainan Island is a troubling sign that China has adopted a more aggressive military posture toward U.S. Navy surveillance ships and is the latest in a series of incidents in international waters.
“In the past several years, they have become more aggressive in asserting that the claims for the [200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone], which are excessive under almost any international code,” Adm. Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“And this latest incident with fishing vessels and a PLA navy vessel involved is the most serious that we’ve seen since 2001, the EP-3 incident,” he said during a hearing on global threats.
A group of Chinese vessels followed and harassed the survey ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea on Monday, the Pentagon said.
U.S. diplomatic protests were delivered to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing and to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
The incident is expected to be discussed Wednesday when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the State Department, a department spokesman said.
The oceanographic ship was 70 miles south of Hainan Island carrying out routine ocean survey operations in international waters when the Chinese ship and other government vessels approached it, d Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
“We view these as unprofessional maneuvers by the Chinese vessels and violations under international law to operate with due regard for the rights and safety of other lawful users of the ocean,” Mr. Whitman said.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said China’s Foreign Ministry has addressed the Pentagon claims. In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry rejected the Pentagon protests and said the survey ship “broke international and Chinese laws in the South China Sea without China’s permission.”
Hainan Island, near where the Impeccable was confronted, is a major Chinese naval and air force base and the expected home port for some of China’s new Jin-class nuclear missile submarines.
Mr. Whitman said two of the Chinese vessels sailed within 50 feet of the Impeccable. The ships included a Chinese intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers.
Crew aboard the Chinese ships dropped pieces of wood in the water in front of the Impeccable and two ships moved directly in front of the survey ship, forcing it to stop.
The Chinese also tried to snag the ship’s towed acoustic sonar devices.
“These are dangerous close maneuvers that these vessels engaged in,” Mr. Whitman said.