China Derides Account By U.S. of Ship Dispute

A U.S. Navy mapping ship confronted by Chinese vessels over the weekend was operating illegally in China's exclusive economic zone, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. Video by AP
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SHANGHAI, March 10 -- China on Tuesday rejected accusations that it harassed a U.S. naval ship off one of its southern islands and said the vessel was conducting illegal surveying activities.

On Monday, the White House had protested the aggressive shadowing of the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea near Hainan Island on Sunday. According to the Pentagon, five Chinese vessels surrounded the ship and closed to within 50 feet while crew members were "waving Chinese flags and telling Impeccable to leave the area."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a news conference Tuesday that the United States had misrepresented the situation and that the U.S. ship had been in a "Chinese exclusive economic zone" without the Chinese government's permission.

"The U.S. claim is totally inaccurate and confuses right and wrong and is unacceptable to China," Ma said. China maintains that the Impeccable's presence violates international law and has demanded that the United States refrain from carrying out similar missions.

In a response Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said, "We stand by our earlier statements that U.S. Navy ships regularly operate in international waters around the world and that the Impeccable was conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law."

Shen Dingli, director of the U.S. Studies Center at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the difference in the U.S. and Chinese perspectives turns on the intent behind the ship's presence. He said that international vessels, including navy ships, are allowed in the area where the Impeccable was as long as it is in a "non-harmful" or "innocent" manner.

In contrast, Shen said: "The U.S. Navy ship came to monitor Chinese submarines. This is not non-harmfully passing by. . . . This activity equals disrespect to Chinese sovereignty. Under such conditions, what the Chinese government is doing is to protect Chinese national interests and international law."

Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on the organization's Web site that the incident occurred 75 miles south of a naval base where China has "started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines" and described it as "part of a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between U.S. and Chinese submarines and their hunters."

The Pentagon has reported at least a half-dozen other instances in the past week of what it called "aggressive behavior" by China toward U.S. surveillance vessels, including flybys by Chinese aircraft.

"The incident will make life harder for those in the Obama administration who want to ease the military pressure on U.S.-Chinese relations, and easier for hard-liners to argue their case," Kristensen said.

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and researcher Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.

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