US-China naval standoff worst in years, US intel chief says

Dennis Blair

Dennis Blair

Last Sunday’s naval confrontation between a US Navy ship and five Chinese vessels was “the most serious” in seven years, according to US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Admiral Dennis Blair. The last known serious intelligence row between the two nations occurred in 2001, when a Chinese Air Force plane collided with a US electronic surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the damaged US plane to perform an emergency landing on Chinese territory. Last Sunday’s incident also occurred in the South China Sea, approximately 75 miles off the Chinese island of Hainan. The US Pentagon initially claimed that its ship, the USNS Impeccable, was a “research vessel”, but it later admitted that it is used to “to hunt” foreign submarines. IntelNews believes the USNS Impeccable is in fact a US National Security Agency (NSA) vessel equipped to perform a variety of surveillance collection operations, including sonar, radar or other signals intelligence, with sonar being the most likely, considering that Hainan island is the site of a major Chinese submarine base. The Chinese, of course, were aware that the Impeccable was “not a research vessel, but a spy ship”. What is more, the ship appeared to be actively engaged in a signals intelligence operation inside what the Chinese consider their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China has maintained for years that “intelligence data-gathering by foreign governments within its EEZ is illegal”, a contention that Washington disputes. This disagreement is at the heart of last Sunday’s standoff. The Chinese sent five vessels, including a surveillance ship of their own, to chase the Impeccable off its EEZ waters. They notified the ship’s Captain that its presence in the area was unauthorized and thus “broke international law and Chinese laws and regulations”. The US Pentagon ordered the ship to stay put, effectively refusing to recognize China’s sovereignty claim. The Chinese vessels then “aggressively maneuvered” around the Impeccable “in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship”, according to the US Pentagon. Those in the know suggest that such maneuvers by vessels belonging to rival naval forces are “not uncommon” in international waters. But the BBC perceptively notes that the US Pentagon “was sufficiently disturbed by the incident […] to make its concerns public” and even summon China’s military attaché in Washington to register its complaint. Briefing Congress about the incident, DNI Blair suggested that it should be viewed within a broader framework of Chinese policies that “seem to be in a more military, aggressive” stance around Southeast Asia. However, the Chinese side vehemently disputes this, and has filed a protest with US Embassy officials in Beijing.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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