The incident that unfolded in the South China Sea Sunday, where the U.S. Navy says five Chinese ships harassed the U.S. submarine surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable, appears to be part of a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between U.S. and Chinese submarines and their hunters.
News media reports cite Pentagon reports of half a dozen other incidents just within the past week in which U.S. surveillance vessels were “subjected to aggressive behavior, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft.”
The latest incident allegedly occurred in international waters only 75 miles south of a budding naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island from where China has started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. The U.S. Navy on its part is busy collecting data on the submarines and seafloor to improve its ability to detect the submarines in peacetime and more efficiently hunt them in case of war.
Among Chinese submarines the USNS Impeccable was monitoring is probably the Shang-class (Type-093) nuclear-powered attack submarine, a new class China is building to replace the old Han-class, and which has recently been seen at the Yulin base.
A commercial satellite image taken September 15, 2008, shows two Shang-class submarines present at the base, the first time – to my knowledge - that two Shang-class SSNs have been seen at the base at the same time.
The incident begs the question who or at what level in the Chinese government the harassment in international waters was ordered. 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 hardliners to argue their case.
For both countries the Sunday incident and the many other incidents that have occurred recently are reminders that the time is long overdue for an agreement to regulate military operations. Following a break in response to U.S. military sales to Taiwan, U.S.-Chinese mid-level military-to-military talks were scheduled to resume last month, and the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, said “nascent initiatives” were underway to draw up some “rules of the road” to address some of these issues.
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