- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

A U.S. destroyer patrolling the South China Sea last week sailed to the aid of the U.S. ocean surveillance ship Impeccable, which was being harassed by three Chinese government vessels and two trawlers.

Ironically, the warship was the USS Chung-Hoon, named for a Chinese-American naval officer awarded the Navy Cross in World War II.

The late Gordon P. Chung-Hoon of Hawaii retired as a two-star admiral in 1959. He was awarded the nation’s second-highest combat decoration for heroic action against Japanese kamikaze, or suicide planes. His namesake ship’s home port is Pearl Harbor.

The warship could outrun, outmaneuver and outgun the Chinese ships on the scene but arrived after the incident to warn the Chinese not to return. The surveillance ship Impeccable resumed its mission of mapping the floor of the treacherous sea - filled with islands, atolls, rocks, banks and reefs - and also likely gathering intelligence on Chinese submarines based on the island of Hainan, 75 miles away.

In turn, Beijing this week dispatched a fishery patrol ship, Yuzheng 311, to sail near the Impeccable and the Chung-Hoon. Whether that ship, converted from a warship, was armed was not clear. China Daily, a government newspaper, renewed China’s claim that much of the South China Sea is Chinese territory. “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and their adjacent waters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

This confrontation, however, was far more than a skirmish at sea. It has turned into an early test for President Obama, who is scheduled to meet with President Hu Jintao of China at the G-20 economic summit in London next month. Sino-U.S. military relations are certain to be on the agenda.

A question being addressed in the Pacific Command’s headquarters above Pearl Harbor was whether the action by the Chinese ships had been ordered by political authorities in Beijing or had been mounted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises all of China’s armed forces.

“It’s hard to tell,” said a U.S. analyst who asked not to be named because he has access to intelligence reports. “But the PLA sometimes goes off on its own without telling anyone.” Some observers thought the confrontation was authorized by Beijing because it was conducted so deliberately and was timed to test the new U.S. president.

In addition, spokesmen for China’s leaders were immediately prepared to assert that the United States had intruded into China’s territorial waters.

In contrast, when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was in Washington to meet with Mr. Obama, all the White House would say was that National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones had “raised the recent incident in the South China Sea.”

The concern among U.S. military officers in the Pacific was that the Chinese would miscalculate in the future and overtly threaten to attack a U.S. warship.

Because the ship’s captain would have the inherent duty to defend his ship, he could order his crew to fire at the Chinese. The consequences would be incalculable.

A White House press release said Mr. Obama “stressed the importance of raising the level and frequency of the U.S.-China military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid future incidents.”

The Chinese broke off those meetings after the Bush administration announced in October that the U.S. would sell $6.5 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, the self-governing island over which Beijing claims sovereignty.

The Pacific Command, led by Adm. Timothy J. Keating, has been trying to revive that dialogue, with staff officers saying the South China Sea incident makes such contacts imperative.

The admiral met quietly with senior Chinese officers in Hong Kong last month, but to no avail.

A Pentagon official, David S. Sedney, was in Beijing on a similar mission but went home empty-handed.

At issue, moreover, is freedom of the seas, which is critically important to the United States.

China claims most of the South China Sea as territorial waters under Beijing’s control. The United States and most Asian nations disagree; much of their economic lifelines pass through that sea. That passage also is vital to U.S. warships sailing between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

China and the U.S. agreed in 1998 to set up a consultative mechanism so warships that encountered each other would have procedures to communicate, interpret the rules of the nautical road and avoid accidents.

It was signed by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Minister of National Defense Chi Haotian.

With last week’s incident and others - such as a 2001 incident in which a Chinese fighter plane buzzing a U.S. intelligence aircraft in the same area collided with it and dropped out of the sky - that agreement appears to have been thrown overboard.

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