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Why Pentagon cooked up the hype of South China Sea disputes
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16:06, March 18, 2009

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By Li Hongmei People's Daily Online

The story about the alleged 'harassment' of two of its navy ships in the South China Sea by Chinese vessels has captured the forefront of the U.S. media coverage all these days. Despite the fact that the tiff between the two countries is unlikely to spiral into something far more serious, it is still evident that the undercurrents threatening to poison the Sino-U.S. relations invariably persist. The maritime disputes, thereby, not only reopened a festering wound, or formally speaking, resurrected a long-standing disagreement, but also reminded the Chinese side to be vigilant at all times.

In actuality, the China-U.S. disputes over the rights in the foreign states' exclusive zones are nothing new: In March 2001, the U.S. Navy survey ship Bowditch intruded into China's zone and confronted by a Chinese frigate; the following month a mid-air collision took place when the U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane, allegedly engaged in 'surveying' off Hainan Province, crashed onto a Chinese jet fighter. There have also been attempted intrusions reported in recent years by the U.S. navy ships and planes, equipped for spying, into waters and airspace of China's exclusive economic zones.

This time, the U.S said that its unarmed ocean surveillance ship Impeccable was followed and harassed in 'international waters' by Chinese vessels, but failed to mention the ship was equipped with the sonar system spying on the Chinese submarines. Although the U.S. has not signed the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which regulates ocean use, it needs to, at least, observe the procedures decided upon by the international community when using foreign states' waters and airspace.

By the treaty, military operations, hydrographic surveying and intelligence collection by foreign ships or planes can be carried out in an economic zone only with permission from the coastal state. Some Asian countries take a similar view, even though they may be subtle in attitudes toward the 'presence' of the U.S. Navy or other naval powers. Particularly in recent days, there has been a scramble amid some of China's neighboring states to grab the claim to ownership of the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters, a stretch of water area over which China historically has indisputable sovereignty. Even so, China insisted it was ready to resolve disputes through consultation.

But it is noteworthy that coinciding with the heated sovereignty disputes over South China Sea, and in duration of the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi paying a work visit to the U.S., Pentagon abruptly cooked up its 'protests' against Chinese vessels over their 'dangerous manoeuvres'. Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that the timing the U.S. military side utilized to show its hard-line stance may point to a tall tale defying analysis. Previously, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had pledged 'balance and harmony' in American foreign policies. However, Obama's new administration has yet to stage a set of mature policies toward China.

At the time, Pentagon, taking the maritime disputes as a pretext to show its teeth to China, may intentionally exert some substantial influence upon White House when setting the basic theme of foreign policies toward China, as Obama had repeatedly vowed to abandon saber-rattling hard power and resort to 'smart power' in tackling international issues. And to seek rescue from China in combating its worst ever financial crisis, the U.S. has currently softened its criticism to China. What's more, Sino-U.S. military dialogue resumed earlier this month after a five-month break.

Given this, even though the South China Sea disputes, resonating to this date, could pose a challenge to diplomacies on either side, and each is still sticking to its own version and argument, the prospects for Sino-U.S. bilateral cooperation would in a long run remain good, especially in times of battling the global economic slump.

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