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    Monday, March 30, 2009

    The case of the Impeccable underwear

    Beijing: It was one of the most bizarre new stories in recent weeks, a quasi-clash between the American and Chinese navies in the South China Sea.

    The incident, according to the various accounts, ranged at times between the very dangerous and the farcical, with five Chinese boats coming so close to the USNS Impeccable – waving Chinese flags and demanding that the American ship leave the area – that the Impeccable resorted to using fire hoses to force their pursuers back. Undaunted, the Chinese sailors stripped to their underwear and kept up their dangerous game of chicken.

    American officials have condemned the Chinese actions and portrayed the incident as an example of growing Chinese aggressiveness, and many news organizations used the story as an opportunity to discuss China's plans to eventually build its first aircraft carrier.

    But looking at a map of where the incident occurred (BBC has a nice one), I find myself wondering how the U.S. navy would respond to a Chinese spy ship floating so close to its territorial waters. (The Impeccable is an unarmed surveillance craft that specializes in tracking submarines. As noted on the Danwei website, the Impeccable also looks “like something in which a James Bond villain would plan world domination.”)

    The South China Sea is a mess of duelling claims, with China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all declaring sovereignty over parts of it. It's also one of the most strategically important bodies of water anywhere, with some 10 million barrels of oil passing through every day aboard tankers. Underneath lies even greater treasure – somewhere 7.7 billion barrels and 28 billion barrels of crude oil. Hence the competing claims and the U.S. navy's interest in patrolling the region.

    The area that the Impeccable was operating in was actually just outside of China's territorial waters, but within what is known under international law as its exclusive economic zone. So the American ship had a right to be there, though the law (to me) seems vaguer on whether foreign nations can park active military vessels in another country's economic zone.

    Most Chinese are cheering on their navy's new willingness to give even the shirts off their backs for their country. “Let's send some ships to the American exclusive economic zone a few times to see the reaction of the U.S.,” a Shandong resident posted on the popular web portal. “We must control the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea by force,” chimed in blogger Wangfengchuizhou.

    This may not go away soon. While Obama and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met last week in Washington to defuse tension over the Impeccable incident, the brouhaha escalated again shortly thereafter, when the Filipino parliament passed a law claiming sovereignty over parts of the Spratly Island chain that are also claimed by China. China responded by announcing it was sending its biggest and fastest patrol boat to the area, while the Impeccable is still floating around, now accompanied by a destroyer.

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