As tension rose over a US-China sea dispute, President Barack Obama met China's top diplomat yesterday to stress the need for more frequent and intense communications to avoid military confrontations that could upset a relationship crucial to solving global crises.
The United States is not giving in to China's demands that it cease naval surveillance in the disputed South China Sea. But Obama told Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during an Oval Office meeting that it was crucial to raise the level of US-Chinese military-to-military talks "in order to avoid future incidents," the White House said.
The US Navy has sent a destroyer to escort the USNS Impeccable, an unarmed sub-hunting ship that Chinese vessels confronted last weekend, a defense official said yesterday.
Yang, in comments before the White House meeting, did not address the naval incident. He called for a "broader and deeper" level of U.S.-Chinese cooperation on dealing with nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea, climate change, trade and economic issues, and an assortment of hotspots around the world.
"Confrontation hurts both sides," Yang said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. The two countries, he said, should "shelve differences" that cannot be immediately resolved and focus on cooperation.
The White House said Obama and Yang also talked about the international financial crisis, North Korea and Darfur.
The United States says its ship was operating legally in international waters, but China claims the ship was violating Chinese law by conducting surveillance too close to the Chinese coastline. The United States says five Chinese ships improperly surrounded and harassed the Impeccable off Hainan Island on Sunday.
Yang also met with Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, a retired US Marine Corps general. Jones, the White House said, also raised the confrontation.
In its first public comment on the episode, China's Defense Ministry yesterday said that the Impeccable was operating illegally inside China's exclusive economic zone when it was challenged by three Chinese government ships and two Chinese-flagged trawlers.
"The Chinese side's carrying out of routine enforcement and safeguarding measures within its exclusive economic zone was entirely appropriate and legal," ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said in a statement faxed to reporters.
"We demand the United States respect our legal interests and security concerns, and take effective measures to prevent a recurrence of such incidents," Huang said.
At the State Department, spokesman Robert Wood said the United States, "with regard to this particular incident, was clearly operating in international waters. We were respecting international law. We will continue to do that."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Yang also "spoke about this issue, and both agreed that we want to make sure that these types of incidents don't recur. They're not helpful to trying to carry on the positive agenda that we have in our bilateral relationship," Wood said.
Defense Department officials say the Impeccable was on a mission to seek out threats such as submarines and was towing a sonar apparatus that scans and listens for subs, mines and torpedoes. With its numerous Chinese military installations, Hainan offers rich hunting for such surveillance.
Of particular interest is the new submarine base near the resort city of Sanya that is home to the Chinese navy's most sophisticated craft.
Satellite photographs of the base taken last year and posted on the Internet by the Federation of American Scientists show a submarine cave entrance and a pier, with a Chinese nuclear-powered Jin class sub docked there.
While little else is known, its location on the South China Sea offers the Chinese navy access to crucial waterways through which much of the shipping bound for Japan and Northeast Asia must travel.
The Hainan base shows how China is paying increasing attention to the South China Sea and other important waterways that are vital to its booming international trade and the delivery of oil and other natural resources for the expanding economy.
While the US military insists there is no question that China violated international law, other experts suggest there is a gray area in how the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is interpreted.
The Chinese invoke a provision that allows countries to restrict scientific maritime research within their exclusive economic zones, or EEZ, which extend 200 miles from the coast. Within those zones, nations may regulate fisheries and scientific research, as well as develop other economic efforts, such as energy generation from waves.
The military, however, says the research provision applies to private studies such as companies looking for oil or groups tracking migratory habits. The law of the sea, military officials say, specifically gives warships and naval auxiliary vessels immunity from being stopped, searched or boarded, and gives them the authority to conduct military operations with the EEZ.