Chinese vessels harassed unarmed ship

March 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The White House said Monday that U.S. Navy ships will continue to operate in the South China Sea, where five Chinese vessels shadowed and maneuvered dangerously close to a Navy surveillance ship, prompting an American protest. "We're going to continue to operate in those international waters, and we expect the Chinese to observe international law around that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said during a Monday press conference.

Gibbs said U.S. officials had "protested the actions of the Chinese ships." A formal protest was relayed to the Chinese government from the U.S. embassy in Beijing and it was to be repeated to a Beijing military attache at a Pentagon meeting Monday.

Defense officials in the Obama administration said the incident Sunday followed several days of "increasingly aggressive" acts by Chinese ships in the region. The episode took place in international waters in the South China Sea, about 75 miles south of Hainan Island.

The USNS Impeccable,a surveillance ship, resorted to spraying one Chinese vessel with water from fire hoses to force it away. Despite the impact of the water, Chinese crew members stripped to their underwear and continued closing within 25 feet, the Defense Department said.

The Impeccable is one of five Navy surveillance ships that probe the ocean to gather acoustic data in an effort to detect underwater threats. The craft was specifically designed to use underwater listening devices to augment the Navy's anti-submarine capability.

"On March 8, 2009, five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the U.S. ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations," the Pentagon statement said.

The Chinese ships included a Chinese Navy intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol Vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel, and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers, officials said.

Two of the Chinese ship closed "to within 50 feet, waving Chinese flags and telling Impeccable to leave the area," officials said in the statement.

"Because the vessels' intentions were not known, Impeccable sprayed its fire hoses at one of the vessels in order to protect itself," the Defense statement said. "The Chinese crew members disrobed to their underwear and continued closing to within 25 feet."

Impeccable's crew radioed to tell the Chinese ships that it was leaving the area and requested a safe path to navigate, the Pentagon said.

But shortly afterward, two of the Chinese ships stopped directly ahead of the Impeccable, forcing it to make an emergency stop to avoid collision. The Chinese also dropped pieces of wood in the water directly in front of Impeccable's path.

"The unprofessional maneuvers by Chinese vessels violated the requirement under international law to operate with due regard for the rights and safety of other lawful users of the ocean," said Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman.

"We expect Chinese ships to act responsibly and refrain from provocative activities that could lead to miscalculation or a collision at sea, endangering vessels and the lives of U.S. and Chinese mariners," Upton added.

In Beijing, Chinese officials did not immediately respond to voicemail messages and e-mail.

China views almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its territory. China's claims to small islets in the region have put it at odds with five governments -- the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Upton said U.S. Navy ships and aircraft routinely operate in the area and that Chinese ships and aircraft routinely steam or fly nearby. "However, these actions were considerably more aggressive and unprofessional than we have seen." Despite its "routine" mission, Upton acknowledged that the Impeccable was a surveillance ship.

The incident came just a week after China and the U.S. resumed military-to-military consultations following a five-month suspension over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. And it came as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was due in Washington this week to meet with U.S. officials.

Pentagon officials said the close encounter followed several other incidents involving the Impeccable and another U.S. vessel Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

-- On Wednesday, a Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Patrol vessel used a high-intensity spotlight to illuminate the ocean surveillance ship USNS Victorious as it operated in the Yellow Sea, about 125 nautical miles from China's coast, the Pentagon said. The move was made without notice or warning, U.S. officials said. The next day, a Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft conducted 12 fly-bys of Victorious at an altitude of about 400 feet and a range of 500 yards.

-- On Thursday, a Chinese frigate approached USNS Impeccable without warning and crossed its bow at a close range of approximately 100 yards, the Pentagon said. This was followed less than two hours later by a Chinese Y-12 aircraft conducting 11 fly-bys of Impeccable at an altitude of 600 feet and a range from 100-300 feet. The frigate then closely crossed Impeccable's bow yet again, this time at a range of approximately 400-500 yards without rendering courtesy or notice of her intentions.

-- On Saturday, a Chinese intelligence collection ship challenged USNS Impeccable over bridge-to-bridge radio, calling her operations illegal and directing Impeccable to leave the area or "suffer the consequences."

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Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor, Matthew Lee and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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