This post summarizes one of nine case studies included in CSIS’s new report, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The full case study is also available for download here. (Principal case study researcher: Jake Douglas)
The United States and China have long disagreed about the permissibility of certain U.S. naval activities along China’s maritime periphery. China and a minority of other coastal states assert the right to prohibit foreign military exercises and reconnaissance within their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Beijing also requires that foreign navies obtain permission before passing through Chinese territorial waters. Washington, however, rejects these demands. Consistent with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the United States believes that China has no legal basis for restricting the exercise of freedom of navigation and overflight. These divergent views are a persistent source of tension. In recent years, Chinese forces have periodically confronted and even harassed U.S. platforms operating within or beyond China’s sovereign waters and airspace, sometimes sparking dangerous at-sea incidents. One such encounter occurred in March 2009.
On March 8, 2009, five Chinese vessels surrounded the USNS Impeccable 75 miles south of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The Impeccable is an unarmed, civilian-operated ocean surveillance ship belonging to Military Sealift Command. It is believed to have been doing hydrographic surveys related to China’s Yulin ballistic submarine base at the time. After Chinese operators ordered it leave the area or “suffer the consequences,” the Impeccable (along with a sister ship operating in the Yellow Sea, the USNS Victorious) was hounded by Chinese vessels and aircraft in the days leading up to the ultimate incident.
The chief of China’s South China Sea Bureau of the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) directed this cross-agency harassment operation on March 8. A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy intelligence ship, FLEC patrol vessel, and China Marine Surveillance (CMS) cutter looked on while two Chinese-flagged fishing trawlers sailed toward the Impeccable. They quickly targeted the ship’s towed sonar array. One trawler crossed its wake in an attempt to run over the underwater equipment. When this failed, the fishermen tried using long poles with grappling hooks. The Impeccable felt forced to blast the crew of one Chinese ship with a high-pressure water nozzle.
Concerned by these aggressive tactics, the Impeccable’s captain finally decided to yield to Beijing’s demand to withdraw and requested China open up an avenue of egress. Yet shortly thereafter, the two Chinese fishing trawlers stopped abruptly ahead of the Impeccable and dropped pieces of wood in the water to block its exit. The U.S. vessel was forced to order an emergency all-stop to avoid a collision. The CMS cutter also moved to obstruct the Impeccable’s path, inching closer until it halted only a few dozen feet away. The PLA Navy ship likewise treaded water a few hundred feet off the Impeccable’s port side. Only after this act of intimidation was the U.S. ship permitted to leave.
The White House was quickly informed of the incident. Evan Medeiros, then-National Security Council director for China, later stated that U.S. policymakers were “unclear” whether these actions reflected “a deliberate effort by [Chinese president] Hu Jintao to test U.S. resolve” early in the new Obama administration. Despite the uncertainty, they concluded that “there is sufficient agency there that in order for them to stop, you have to send a very clear signal.” On March 9, the Department of Defense publicized China’s “aggressive and unprofessional” behavior and accused Beijing of flouting its obligations under UNCLOS. Officials also underscored the legality of the United States’ “routine operations in international waters.”
Chinese spokespersons responded by issuing their own criticisms of U.S. behavior and policy. Rather than dispute the factual details of the incident, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that it was actually the United States that had violated international and domestic Chinese law by “engaging in activities in China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea without China’s permission.” The Ministry of National Defense justified the harassment as “normal activities of law enforcement.” It urged Washington to respect Beijing’s “legal interests and security concern[s].” Quasi-authoritative voices also claimed that foreign navies only enjoy the right to “innocent passage” in China’s EEZ, and that the Impeccable had come “too close” to the Chinese coast this time in comparison to past missions. Even so, a top PLA Navy official indicated that Beijing would not let the incident derail overall bilateral military ties.
On March 11 and 12, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor General James Jones, and President Barack Obama in Washington on a prescheduled visit. According to Secretary Clinton, the two sides exchanged their respective positions on the Impeccable incident but agreed to “work to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.” The Chinese foreign ministry nonetheless publicly laid responsibility for avoiding future confrontations solely on Washington’s shoulders.
The United States deployed a guided missile destroyer, the USS Chung-Hoon, to the South China Sea at the same time as these high-level talks. The Pentagon informed reporters that the destroyer would “keep an eye on” the Impeccable as it returned to the original site to continue its undersea surveillance mission. Speaking a week later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hinted that such armed escorts could become standard practice if Chinese harassment continued. Still, military leaders indicated a desire to move past the episode, taking the time publicly to contrast the incident with the two countries’ anti-piracy cooperation in the Gulf of Aden.
Chinese officials reportedly watched these signals closely. On March 20, state media published an unusual article announcing that the “Chinese military is ready to call an end to the standoff.” This did not mean, however, that Beijing had changed its view on U.S. surveillance missions along its maritime periphery. Just a month later, Chinese civilian fishing trawlers again harassed the USNS Victorious while it was conducting reconnaissance in the Yellow Sea.
Some important conclusions can be drawn about the Impeccable incident that are significant for other risky at-sea and air-to-air encounters in the Western Pacific.
- First, the incident was rooted in different views of what does (or should) constitute international law. Even when there is no disagreement about the facts, Washington and Beijing may still dispute the ultimate cause of risky confrontations.
- Second, the harassment campaign was clearly premeditated and well-coordinated. Just as the 2001 EP-3 incident occurred shortly after George W. Bush assumed the presidency, this provocation may have been an attempt to probe the Obama administration’s resolve.
- Third, although the PLA Navy as well as law enforcement agencies participated in the operation, civilian fishermen acting as a maritime militia were responsible for the most serious acts of harassment.
- Fourth, Beijing de-escalated in the short term after Washington demonstrated its willingness to escalate. Yet, Chinese forces continued to harass U.S. vessels and aircraft in subsequent months and years. Although these incidents pose dangers, history suggests they are less likely to trigger an outright conflict than more serious crises.
For more articles in this series, please visit our Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia Report page.