Some Folks Never Seem Able To Learn

The world is plunging into possibly the greatest financial depression it has ever seen; both the United States and China are suffering badly, with millions thrown out of work in both countries, homes foreclosed, soup kitchens once again operating in major cities.

Meanwhile, how are these two nations behaving towards each other?

In the China Sea, Chinese ships are busily bugging an American naval vessel, the USNS Impeccable, their crews stripped down to their underwear as American sailors fire water cannons at them.[1]

What’s it all about?

Do Barack Obama and Hu Jintao know this is going on? Have the two leaders sanctioned this childish game of ‘catch me if you can’ between a supposedly unarmed US surveillance ship, and a Chinese naval fleet consisting of a naval intelligence-gathering ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol Vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel, and two small trawlers.

It’s hardly what you’d call an armada, now is it?

According to the US, who’ve never been known to lie on such matters – well, hardly ever – the Impeccable has been cruising in international waters, simply minding its own business, while constantly harassed by bits of the Chinese air force, and what is obviously a very small, and somewhat nondescript section of its navy.

It all sounds very US innocent, until we learn that the Impeccable is just seventy-five miles south of Hainan Island, a large chunk of rock not quite attached to the Chinese mainland, but very much a part of it, and sitting squarely across the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin.

The area is described as “international waters” by the US, and technically it is, but the area is disputed, not only by China but also Vietnam and Taiwan. The Paracel Islands lie approximately 200 miles south of Hainan Island and are also claimed by these three nations.[2]

The whole affair is complicated further by something called the ‘United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’ which basically gave certain rights to coastal nations up to a 200 mile limit, rather than the old 12 mile limit. China is a signatory. The USA is not. Consequently, each nation is reading the term ‘international waters’, and ‘territorial waters’ under completely different definitions.

Frankly, sympathies should lie with the Chinese over this incident. Just ask yourself how America would react if Chinese naval vessels were poking around off California, or the Carolinas. F16’s would be winging their way skywards before you could take a first bite of your breakfast Big Mac.

It might be prudent to ask exactly what the USNS Impeccable is doing in the South China Sea. Her very presence there cannot fail to rouse Chinese passions.

Although overshadowed by events later that year, many Americans will recollect the Hainan Island Incident back in 2001. That time it involved an American Navy EP-3E surveillance aircraft snooping over the exact same stretch of ocean. The Chinese sent fighters to warn it off. One collided with the US aircraft, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane down on the Chinese airstrip at Hainan.

The event rapidly escalated into an international incident. The ‘United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’ applies equally to airspace, and the Chinese argued the US were violating their territory. The US aircrew were detained for ten days, though well treated, and eventually the US delivered the famous, “Letter of the two sorries”, apologizing for the death of the Chinese pilot and loss of the plane, and for entering China’s airspace without authorization.

No-one really knows why the US caved under Chinese pressure, but it’s likely Jiang Zemin threatened to cut off George W Bush’s funding if he didn’t comply.

Given that America is in hock to China to the tune of billions of dollars, it may not be too long before another “Letter of the two sorries” is winging its way to Beijing. This time, over the USNS Not-Quite-So-Impeccable.

Meanwhile, America, get your sorry ass out of China’s backyard. In the present economic climate we all have enough to worry about, without the fear of yet another international incident.

[1] “Chinese ships ‘harass’ US vessel” BBC, March 9th 2009

[2] South China Sea – Click to enlarge.

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