- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Chinese warship recently ran aground in the South China Sea, an embarrassing incident that has highlighted international tensions over Beijing’s increasing military power and disputes among China’s neighbors.

Inside the Ring obtained the first photograph of the Chinese ship that was beached July 7 and stranded for 10 days. The photo was taken by a Philippines military photographer during a flight over the disputed Half Moon Shoal that both Beijing and Manila claim as their maritime territory. The shoal sits astride a key strategic waterway about 70 miles from the Philippines island province of Palawan.

Tensions have been mounting in the South China Sea as China systematically has stepped up claims to sovereignty over almost the entire resource-rich sea, prompting the U.S. government to worry that current Cold War-style maritime disputes could turn hot.

On Aug. 3, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell expressed U.S. worries about “peace and stability,” “freedom of navigation” and respect for international law in the South China Sea.

“We are concerned by the increase in tensions in the South China Sea and are monitoring the situation closely,” he said, noting troubling signs that include more confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resources and several incidents.

“In particular, China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” Mr. Ventrell said.

China reacted to the statement by calling in the U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Robert S. Wang to protest.

China denounced the U.S. statement, saying it “completely ignored the facts, deliberately confounded right and wrong and sent a seriously wrong signal, which is not conducive to the efforts safeguarding peace and stability of the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific region.”

The Chinese urged the United States to “immediately correct the wrong behavior, earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and do more things which are truly beneficial to the stability and prosperity in Asia-Pacific.”

Regarding the grounded warship, one Philippines official said the photo showed “the bully that ran aground.”

The ship was identified as the Hainan Island-based Dongguan. Days before it ran aground, the ship fired its deck guns at three Philippines fishing boats near Jackson Atoll in the disputed Spratlys Island chain.

Philippines officials also said the Dongguan was involved in other harassment incidents against Filipino fishing vessels.

According to Richard Fisher, a Chinese military affairs specialist, the Dongguan recently was upgraded with YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missiles, which have a range of 155 miles. It also has a new stealthy, infrared-suppressing exhaust stack.

After the Dongguan ran aground, five or six Chinese ships sailed to aid the stranded vessel. It was freed 10 days later.

A Philippines navy BN-2A Islander patrol aircraft then flew over the ship and took photos of the frigate and a Jiangwei-II class frigate that sailed to the area to provide support.

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