American Proscenium

China Ups the Ante

Despite professions of friendship and cooperation in Washington and Beijing, U.S.-Chinese relations in the Obama era are off to a rocky start.  The most prominent cause of tension was an incident in early March in the South China Sea.  U.S.S. Impeccable, a “survey vessel” (spy ship) was conducting operations some 30 miles off the coast of China when several small Chinese vessels engaged in harassing behavior.  Washington protested China’s actions and sent a destroyer to protect Impeccable’s ongoing operations.  Beijing responded by sending a modern patrol ship of its own to show the flag.

On one level, the episode is merely the latest manifestation of a longstanding disagreement between China and the United States (and most of China’s neighbors) about the status of the South China Sea.  Beijing claims the entire area as an “exclusive economic zone” and has taken steps to establish a presence in the Spratly and Paracel islands, a chain of uninhabited reefs and atolls that experts suspect sits atop major oil and natural-gas reserves.  Washington, on the other hand, insists that the area is in international waters.  As the world’s leading maritime power, the United States opposes efforts by countries to lay claim to significant oceanic tracts.  China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea is especially worrisome because the area includes...

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