- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States is not backing down in the face of Chinese demands that it quit naval surveillance in the disputed South China Sea. But the Obama administration says the dispute will not dominate Thursday’s White House visit by China’s top diplomat.

The U.S. Navy has sent a destroyer to escort the unarmed sub-hunting ship that got into a scrape with Chinese vessels last weekend, a defense official said Thursday. The Hawaii-based destroyer USS Chung-Hoon joined the USNS Impeccable on Wednesday.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive ship movements.

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The United States says its ship was operating legally in international waters, but China claims the ship was violating Chinese law by conducting surveillance too close to the Chinese coastline. The United States claims that five Chinese ships improperly surrounded and harassed the Impeccable off Hainan Island on Sunday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expects the dispute will be discussed when Yang meets later Thursday with President Barack Obama, but will not dominate the conversation. Yang also is expected to meet with Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, a former U.S. Marine Corps general.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She said the U.S. and China agreed on the need to reduce tensions and avoid a repeat of the confrontation.

In its first public comment on the Sunday episode, China’s Defense Ministry said the Impeccable was operating illegally inside China’s exclusive economic zone when it was challenged by three Chinese government ships and two Chinese-flagged trawlers.

“The Chinese side’s carrying out of routine enforcement and safeguarding measures within its exclusive economic zone was entirely appropriate and legal,” ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said in a statement faxed overnight to reporters.

“We demand the United States respect our legal interests and security concerns, and take effective measures to prevent a recurrence of such incidents,” Huang said.

Defense Department officials say the Impeccable was on a mission to seek out threats such as submarines and was towing a sonar apparatus that scans and listens for subs, mines and torpedoes. With its numerous Chinese military installations, Hainan offers rich hunting for such surveillance.

Of particular interest is the new submarine base near the resort city of Sanya that is home to the Chinese navy’s most sophisticated craft.

Satellite photographs of the base taken last year and posted on the Internet by the Federation of American Scientists show a submarine cave entrance and a pier, with a Chinese nuclear-powered Jin class sub docked there.

While little else is known, its location on the South China Sea offers the Chinese navy access to crucial waterways through which much of the shipping bound for Japan and Northeast Asia must travel.

The Hainan base shows how China is paying increasing attention to the South China Sea and other important waterways that are vital to its booming international trade and the delivery of oil and other natural resources for the expanding economy.


Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.


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