James J. Coyle: China challenges the WestBy JAMES J. COYLE/ For the Register
Published: Dec. 30, 2013 Updated: 2:44 p.m.
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On Dec. 5, the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens was in the South China Sea, observing the maiden voyage of the new Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. It received a radio message from the Chinese fleet advising them that they had broached an inner defense perimeter surrounding the carrier and was ordered to leave the area. The American skipper replied he had a right to be in the area, as the ship was in international waters.
Suddenly, a Chinese naval vessel accompanying the Liaoning crossed the bow of the Cowpens, within 200 yards of the American naval vessel. The Chinese were apparently trying to force the Cowpens to stop dead in the water, to what ends no one is certain. To avoid a collision between the two ships, the American captain had to make emergency maneuvers. The Americans then broke off from the Chinese fleet. Score one for China.
It was not the first military confrontation. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American EP-3 reconnaissance plane. In March 2009, another U.S. warship, the Impeccable, was forced by five Chinese ships to make emergency maneuvers to avoid another collision.
The “inner defense perimeter” was a Chinese unilateral declaration of sovereignty over the South China Sea. Perhaps even more dangerous are Chinese unilateral declarations in the East China Sea, where China has laid claim to an island group that has been a part of Japan for the past century. It also has laid claim and seized a shoal claimed by the Philippines and a reef claimed by South Korea.
To boost its claims, the Chinese last month declared an air defense identification zone, or ADIF, over these troubled waters. All aircraft flying in the area must declare themselves to Chinese authorities. The U.S. military has ignored the ADIF, but the Obama administration has counseled American civilian aircraft to abide by the rules. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun advised this would not be the only ADIF China would create.
The United States takes these claims of sovereignty seriously. In the case of the island dispute between China and Japan, the U.S. has stated that these islands are covered by the U.S.-Japanese defense treaty which states any attack on Japanese territory is considered a threat to the peace and security of both countries. The U.S. has similar pacts with the Philippines and South Korea. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Manila the week before Christmas, condemned China’s unilateral actions, and pledged $40 million to strengthen Manila’s sea defense capabilities.
It is only natural for countries that are growing in strength to flex their military muscles. At issue, however, is the possibility on either side of a miscalculation or mistake. The results could be catastrophic as two nuclear-armed countries faced off against each other. This is something the United States and the Soviet Union avoided throughout the Cold War.
China claimed that other countries need not fear its increase in power, arguing that it was not like great powers in the past. China said it has no military or territorial ambitions. Hu Jintao’s “peaceful rise” has been replaced, however, as China begins acting like a normal great power.
James J. Coyle is a professor and the director of Global Education at Chapman University and chair of the Eurasian Committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.