Navy Sends Destroyer to Protect Surveillance Ship After Incident in South China Sea

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

The U.S. Navy has dispatched a guided-missile destroyer to the South China Sea after Chinese ships allegedly harassed an American ship operating there last weekend, a Pentagon official said yesterday.

The USS Chung-Hoon, armed with torpedoes and missiles, is stationed in protection of the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship. On Sunday, five Chinese vessels surrounded the Impeccable, which is unarmed. The Chinese ships approached to within 25 feet and blocked the Impeccable's path with pieces of wood, the official said.

"Chung-Hoon is there, in the area, keeping an eye on Impeccable, which continues lawful military operations," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Hawaii-based destroyer, with a crew of about 275, was in the region for a regularly scheduled deployment and was diverted to the escort mission, the official said. "It's not like we specially deployed another ship," he said.

Pentagon officials did not say whether such escorts will now be routine for surveillance ships in the area, but they suggested that this one will continue for the duration of the Impeccable's current operation.

The arrival of the destroyer underscores the Pentagon's determination to continue with the surveillance mission in spite of China's claims that it represents an illegal military activity -- aimed, according to Chinese experts, at monitoring submarine activity south of Hainan Island.

It also signaled heightened U.S.-China tensions on a day when President Obama met with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the White House. The two leaders called for strengthening cooperation to build "a positive and constructive" relationship, according to a White House statement.

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 White House said. National security adviser James L. Jones also raised the weekend's incident in an earlier meeting with Yang, according to the statement.

Washington protested the incident Monday, but China rejected the charges, saying the U.S. vessel was conducting illegal surveying activities in one of China's exclusive economic zones.

Washington and Beijing have voiced a desire to cooperate on issues ranging from the global economic crisis to North Korea. In their meeting, Obama and Yang "agreed that China and the U.S. must work closely and urgently, as two of the world's leading economies, to stabilize the global economy by stimulating demand at home and abroad, and get credit markets flowing," the White House said.

Obama also expressed hope for progress in the Chinese government's dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

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