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Fresh Friction In Sino-US Relations Over “Naval Espionage”, Tibet

Less than a month after the highly successful (from Beijing’s point of view) visit by Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to China, fresh friction has developed in the relations between the US and China following an incident of alleged spying by a US naval ship in Chinese waters in the South China Sea and the remarks made by a US spokesman and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of theTibetan uprising of 1959, which led to the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India.

2. The friction over the naval incident arose following a complaint by the US Defence Department that on March 8,2009, five Chinese ships manoeuvred dangerously close to USS Impeccable ,an unarmed US Navy surveillance vessel, while it was on routine operations in international waters 75 miles (120 km) south of the Hainan island. A Pentagon statement said that five Chinese vessels —–a naval intelligence-gathering ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol Vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel, and two small trawlers—– “aggressively manoeuvred” around the USS Impeccable “in an apparent co-ordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship”. US officials complained that the incident followed days of “increasingly aggressive” acts by Chinese ships.

3. Strongly refuting the US allegations, Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on March10,2009, that the US ship had violated international and Chinese laws. He described the Pentagon statement as “totally inaccurate”. According to him, the US ship was conducting activities within the waters of its Special Economic Zone.Under international law, Chinese territorial waters extend to 12 nautical miles (22km) off its coast and its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends to 200 nautical miles.China views most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also lay claim to some of the islands there.The USS Impeccable is used to map the ocean floor with sonar. The information is used by the US Navy to steer its own submarines or track those of other nations.

4. The Chinese are very sensitive to any activity by US AIr Force planes and naval ships near the Hainan Island, where they have an important submarine base. In April 2001, three months after George Bush had assumed office as the President, a US spy plane collided mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan, killing one Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing at a Hainan air base. China released the 24-member crew after the US expressed regret.

5. The extent of the Chinese anger over the naval incident became evident from the way the Chinese authorities mobilised a number of serving and retired officers of the Chinese Navy attending the current National People’s Congress (NPC) session to deny the US version and to condemn alleged US naval espionage in Chinese waters.

6.Vice-Admiral Jin Mao, former Vice-Commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Navy, was quoted by the “China Daily” on March 11,2009, as saying that the American vessel was not just a surveillance ship, but a spy ship. “What was the ship doing? Anyone with eyes can see, and our navy can see even more clearly.Go and ask the Americans, ask their embassy. Ask their officials what their ship was doing in Chinese waters. It’s like a man with a criminal record wandering just outside the gate of a family home. When the host comes out to find out what he is doing there, the man complains that the host had violated his rights,”

7.The “China Daily” also quoted Rear-Admiral Zhang Deshun, Deputy Chief of Staff of the PLA’s Navy, as corroborating that the US vessel was a spy ship. The “Impeccable” carried a 2-km-long detection cable and its sheer presence threatened Chinese vessels in the country’s maritime territory, he said, and added that the US navy’s surveillance near Chinese maritime territory had been consistent, but this time “it is too close”.

8.According to the paper, Rear-Admiral Lin Yongqing, former Deputy Chief of Staff of the PLA’s South China Sea Fleet, said the response of Chinese ships was “nothing wrong”. “It’s easy to tell (who’s right and who’s wrong). The Chinese ships were exercising their legal rights.” Rear-Admiral Zhang Huachen, from the East China Sea Fleet, said that Beijing is “strongly against” Washington’s military moves in China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and defended Chinese ships’ activities there.

9. The friction and the expression of strong words over the naval incident were followed by the Chinese condemnation of remarks by US leaders and officials on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959. Speaking at a function on Capitol Hill on March 9,2009, to observe the 50th anniversary, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, said: “Fifty years ago today, the people of Lhasa assembled together and called for the Chinese army to cease its repression and to leave Tibet. Today, we remember that day and honour the many brave Tibetans who have sacrificed so dearly in their fight for freedom.Chief among them is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was forced into exile in India. The welcoming of India of the Tibetan refugee community is a testament to the close ties between the Indian and Tibetan people.It’s a friendship rooted in a mutual admiration for the philosophy of non-violence as practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama……For the last year, Tibet has been under martial law and the human rights situation continues to worsen.Sadly, there has been no progress in the discussions between the Chinese Government and representatives of the Dalai Lama. It is clear that the Chinese Government has not won the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, but rather, the Tibetan people have accumulated legitimate grievances from decades of repressive policies.They have been economically marginalized in their own land, imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views, and barred from practicing their religion without government interference.It’s long past time for Beijing to make progress on a solution that respects the human rights of every Tibetan.The US Congress continues to be a bedrock of support for the Tibetan people.”

10. Pelosi thus made amends for the discreet silence observed by Mrs. Clinton on the Tibetan issue during her visit to Beijing. Her remarks also made clear that unlike the Obama administration officials,the traditional supporters of His Holiness in the Congress are determined to maintain pressure on China on the Tibetan issue. Apparently stung by criticism of Mrs.Clinton for her muted remarks on human rights issues at Beijing, the State Department issued a statement on March 10, 2009, which, while pointing out that even His Holiness recognised Tibet as a part of China, said: “We are deeply concerned by the human rights situation in Tibetan areas.We urge China to reconsider its policies in Tibet that have created tensions due to their harmful impact on Tibetan religion, culture, and livelihood.Substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives could lead to progress in bringing about solutions and can help achieve true and lasting stability in Tibet.”

11. This statement was issued even as Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, was in Washington DC at the invitation of Mrs.Clinton for talks on the bilateral relations in continuation of Mrs.Clinton’s talks in Beijing. Reacting vehemently to the statement of the US State Department, Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in Beijing on March 11,2009 : “The United States, ignoring the facts, has made unwarranted criticism of China on the issue of Tibet… We express our resolute opposition and strong dissatisfaction with this.We ask the US side… to acknowledge that Tibet is a part of China and oppose Tibetan independence, avoid harming overall China-US relations, and stop using the Tibet issue to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

12. Is this a temporary friction, which will not have any impact on the positive signs of close co-operation, which had emerged after Mrs.Clinton’s visit or will it cause a fresh set-back? Both the countries are interested in working jointly in dealing with the economic crisis and in improving the strategic partnership between the two. At the same time, by taking a strong line on the two issues even at the risk of this causing a set-back to the newly-emerging bonhomie, China has sought to make it clear that its interest in close relations with the US would not mean a dilution of what it regards as its principled stand on issues of vital interest to China such as its rights in the South China Sea and the Tibetan and the Taiwanese issues.

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently,Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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