China responded sharply Tuesday to Washington's accusations over a confrontation at sea, an incident that analysts said could become more common as Beijing strengthens its navy and asserts claims to adjacent waters.
The U.S. accused Chinese ships of surrounding and harassing its Navy vessel in international waters, coming within 25 feet of the USNS Impeccable, stopping dead in front of it and strewing debris in its path. Some of the Chinese crew even stripped to their underwear after a blast by U.S. fire hoses.
"They seem to be more militarily aggressive," U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "I think the debate is still on in China whether as their military power increases they will be used for good or for pushing people around."
Most serious incident since 2001
He called Sunday's incident the most serious episode between the two nations since 2001, when a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet near the same area.
China's Foreign Ministry said the American ship "broke international and Chinese laws in the South China Sea without China's permission."
The incident will likely be discussed when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visits Washington this week. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing lodged a protest with the Foreign Ministry and said the Navy mapping vessel had been conducting "routine operations ... in accordance with customary international law."
The latest confrontation between U.S. surveillance craft and Chinese coastal defenses took place in international waters in the South China Sea about 75 miles south of China's Hainan Island, the home of numerous Chinese naval installations.
Observers said Beijing appeared to be asserting its claim to refuse rights to foreign navies wanting to carry out surveillance within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The zone, under international law, gives a state certain rights over the use of natural resources there. Shen Dingli, director of the Center of American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, said China wants to exert control in the waters beyond economic interests.
"China considers that international law only allows innocent passage for military vessels in its zone, not activities that could be considered to have a military purpose," he said.
Neither side appears willing to compromise
That clashes with one of the cardinal principles of America's doctrine of ocean navigation: the right to unrestricted passage in international waters as long as vessels are not encroaching on the economic interests of the country it is passing.
While the U.S. has offered talks on the issue, neither side appears willing to compromise.
China has recorded at least 200 instances of U.S. vessels collecting intelligence in China's exclusive economic zone, but generally chose to avoid confrontation, said Guan Jianqiang, an international law expert at Shanghai's East China University of Politics and Law.
The latest incident had overtones of spycraft, but the U.S. ship is not, strictly speaking, a spy ship. It maps the ocean floor with sonar, compiling information the Navy can use to steer its own submarines or track those of other nations.
Hainan hosts numerous naval and air force installations and is the home of Beijing's newest submarine base. An overall naval upgrade is adding advanced missile destroyers, diesel electric submarines, and possibly one or more aircraft carriers in coming years.
The U.S. and others are eager to learn more about those programs and their eventual aims, although Beijing has largely dismissed calls for greater transparency. Keeping out prying eyes and ears is a key priority.
"For the foreseeable future, China will continue to test the waters to see to what extent they can dissuade the U.S. from taking such a close interest," said Ron Huisken of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center.
Growing diplomatic assertiveness
The naval upgrade comes alongside a growing diplomatic assertiveness in Beijing, particularly in backing up its claims to extensive maritime territories to the east and south.
China views almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its territory. Its claims to small islets in the region have put it at odds with five governments — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The weekend incident also comes amid an overwhelmingly positive start to relations between China and the Obama administration, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton receiving a warm welcome during a visit to Beijing last month.
Clinton was followed by David Sedney, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asian security affairs. His visit marked the first formal military dialogue between the People's Liberation Army and the U.S. since China canceled or suspended nearly a dozen exchanges last year in protest over a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.
Despite the positive momentum, the U.S. remains wary of China's rapid military buildup, fueled by double-digit annual percentage increases in the defense budget.